It has become apparent through GAP’s litigation in the District of Columbia that one of the most serious perpetrators of retaliation against District government employees is the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services (“FEMS”) Department. FEMS has on several occasions unjustly retaliated against whistleblowers who speak out against wrongdoing.
This page details the cases of selected GAP clients who have been retaliated against by FEMS for their whistleblowing activities.
Captain Vanessa Coleman was a firefighter for nearly 20 years. Rising in the ranks of the fire department is difficult enough – but when you’re a female in this male-dominated culture, it’s even harder. In 2008, despite a history beginning as a fire cadet with subsequent promotions to Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain, and solid annual performance reviews, Coleman was singled out by department officials and made to bear the blame for the problems stemming from a major fire in Washington, DC. But the facts show she was clearly not to blame. Eventually, she was fired for her refusal to submit to an ordered psychological evaluation – a gross violation of privacy rights, DC’s Whistleblower Protection Act, and an especially outrageous form of retaliation.
The Mt. Pleasant Fire
The fire was the worst fire in Washington, DC in a decade. At the fire, Coleman was directed away from the basement of the apartment building to the third floor. This diversion was later found to be of great importance, as fire officials now believe the fire may have originated in the basement. Audio of Coleman being ordered to the third floor can be found here.
In the months following the Mt. Pleasant fire, then-Battalion chief John Lee, who ordered Coleman and her crew to the third floor, retired from the Department.
The retaliation against Coleman that has ensued since the fire is a laundry list of unacceptable actions that include: being placed on charges, a suspension, failure to support her authority as a Captain, being stripped of duties, and a transfer.
The Psych Test
In July 2008, Coleman received a notice that she was to report for a psychological evaluation, ordered by Assistant Chief Brian Lee. Upon reporting for the exam, she requested union assistance or legal counsel to explain the waiver form she was required to sign, but was denied. Coleman, although she reported as ordered, was unwilling to submit to the exam under the conditions presented to her. Coleman was directed not to go back to work and to take sick leave until she was able to take a rescheduled psychological evaluation.
GAP came to Coleman’s aide, fighting hard against the department’s abuse of the psychological testing requirements, and other forms of retaliation. Coleman was given a hearing date in front of the Fire Trial Board – the internal justice system of the Fire Department – to decide her fate for her failure to sign the form. This Board however, is a farce, and fails to provide basic due process protections. It was obvious from the beginning of this trial that the decision would not be favorable – the hearing process was under the direct control of Asst. Chief Brian Lee and the Fire Chief – both of whom Coleman claimed retaliated against her.
The Fire Trail Board decided that Coleman should be demoted two ranks for failing to acknowledge that the ordered, retaliatory psychological evaluation, or “fitness for duty” exam, was voluntary. GAP asserts that the order to take the test was illegal and was not based on any legitimate concern about Coleman’s psychological well-being. The Board further ordered Coleman to return for the examination.
But Coleman refused. She knew that the order was unjustified and illegal. She stood up for her rights, and basic principles of fairness that should apply to all firefighters.
One month later, she was fired.
But this ongoing case is far from over. GAP continues with its suit against the department in federal court, and we are confident we will prevail. The actions by departmental officials are palpably improper.
Former Fire Department General Counsel Theresa Cusick was forced out of her position by officials from FEMS and the DC Office of Attorney General (OAG) after speaking out about an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation of another DC fire official. Despite nine years as General Counsel with FEMS , Cusick was involuntarily transferred into a temporary position.
In late 2009, GAP produced a video about some aspects of Teresa’s case, during which Chief Rubin made several questionable statements. That video appears below.
Both Coleman and Cusick also appeared on Episode 15 of Whistle Where You Work, GAP's television program. Each, along with another DCFD whistleblower, detailed the struggles they have faced for exposing information, and the retaliation they have faced within a department that is more focused on having orders obeyed than on whether the orders are legal in the first place. That episode, which also features a panel discussion looking at the ordering of psychological evaluation as a means of retaliation against whistleblowers, appears below.