The firing of a paramedic who tested positive for cocaine use during a drug test has placed Northwest Fire and Rescue District Chief Jeff Piechura at odds with the firefighter's union that has staunchly supported him in the past.
The district's firefighters union responded to the firing with two letters approved by a majority vote of it's members. Piechura has reportedly refused to accept the letters and has banished the firefighter who gave him the first letter, the union's president, from meeting with him.
Piechura said he never received the union's grievance letters.
Members of Northwest's firefighter's union said the issue wasn't so much the fact that Piechura fired veteran paramedic Bill Foss, but rather the way he was terminated - with a gag order imposed on him, with little notice and with no union representation.
The order not to discuss the termination hearing applied to all employees of the district, which includes union representatives.
NWFD Union President John Barbee said Foss was not given enough time to find legal representation.
"They gave him the notice of intent to terminate at 4 p.m. on a Friday and held the hearing at 9 a.m the following Monday and he couldn't get legal representation. They essentially placed a gag order on him that denied him union representation," Barbee said.
Union officials said the district has a "two strike" policy that could have been invoked that would have allowed the paramedic to enter drug rehabilitation and keep his job if he stayed clean through a battery of mandated drug tests.
Piechura refused comment except to say that an investigative report on Foss had been forwarded to Arizona Department of Health Services, which certifies the state's paramedics.
In what was reported to be a tersely worded letter hand delivered to Piechura by Barbee July 19, union officials cited the firing as a another blow to the department's declining morale.
"He refused to accept the letter and and said that we would have to reword it and submit it to him within seven days," Barbee said. "He got very defensive. My opinion is that we gave him a vote of confidence about a year and half ago when he had a (NWFD governing) board that he simply couldn't work with … I don't know if he thought that was a five year vote of confidence, but as far as I'm concerned, it's up for annual renewal."
A second letter, described by Barbee as being "kinder and gentler" was drafted and presented to Piechura July 26.
"I understand he refused to receive it, but I don't know for sure because it was requested that I not be at the meeting by Chief Piechura. He was still angry about the first letter," Barbee said. "He still levied the sanction of locking me out of the meetings, which he said he wouldn't do if I complied with his request to reword the letter."
A source in the Northwest district union said Piechura did receive the first letter, even though Piechura told the Northwest EXPLORER he had not.
"That was all b-------," said the union official " He knew that if he accepted it would be available to the press under the (Arizona) Public Record Law and he didn't want it to get out because it was critical of his leadership."
When asked whether he had the first letter in his possession, Piechura said he was "unsure" if he ever accepted it.
"I've looked everywhere - in my briefcase, in the trash, in my desk - I can't locate it anywhere. I think they may have just left it on the table when they left, but I don't have it," Piechura said.
Union officials said Piechura did not accept the second letter either, but instructed the union's vice president to read it to him.
When asked by a reporter about the second letter, Piechura said he had not received it and "could not comment at all about it's contents."
The NWFD union also refused to release the letters, but sources said they focused mostly on firefighters' slumping morale and the firing of the paramedic.
The loss of union support comes at a critical time for Piechura, who has been a target of criticism from taxpayers and members of the governing board for his district's galloping tax rate and rising expenditures.
Piechura had the union squarely behind him in November when he survived an internal investigation prompted by 23 allegations leveled by the district's former chief financial officer. Piechura was cleared of almost all of the charges, which included accusations that he violated the state's procurement policies.
The firing last month of Foss, a former captain, union official, paramedic and training officer also placed scrutiny on the Golder Ranch Fire District, which hired him shortly after he left NWFD and plans to employ him as a firefighter-paramedic.
While some would question the wisdom of a paramedic with a cocaine problem being hired by a fire department within months of being fired by another, Golder Ranch Fire Chief John Fink has received accolades from firefighters in both districts and their unions for trying to salvage Foss's more than 13 years of experience.
"Our union is thinking of creating something that would give Chief Fink the brass balls award for valor," said a Northwest union official, who asked not to be identified because he feared retaliation from Piechura.
"Chief Fink had the same information (as Piechura) and went up to bat for him."
Foss said he was fired because "he wasn't straight" with Piechura on exactly when his cocaine problem started.
Foss told a reporter his cocaine use began after he responded to the Osprey military plane crash April 8 of last year at the Marana Northwest Regional Airport that killed 19 Marines.
Foss said he was medically diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after attempting to rescue Marines from the carnage of the Osprey crash.
The union official confirmed Foss gave Piechura conflicting accounts of when his drug usage began.
"First he told the chief that it started on a trip to Las Vegas. Then he said it was when the Osprey crashed last year. And then he said it may have stretched back for years," the official said.
Golder Ranch Firefighters' Association President Dan Klement echoed sentiments found among both district's union members.
"(Foss) made a single big mistake in a long career that has seen very few mistakes. He's well respected and our union stands behind him 100 percent," Klement said.
"He will be drug tested and monitored here and we really feel like having him is the district's gain."
Fink said he didn't hesitate when Foss asked to meet with him.
"Everybody deserves a second chance and we also have a two strike policy. I understand about protecting the public's safety, and I certainly don't condone drug use, but that's why the safeguards of testing and rehabilitation are in place," Fink said.
Foss will be considered to already have "one strike" against him at Golder Ranch and will have to submit to random urinalysis testing and be enrolled in a verifiable drug treatment program for the next two years, Fink said.
"He went through the selection process just like everyone else," Fink said. "He was one of three selected out of a class of 50 applicants," Fink said.
Foss is married to another NWFD employee, Leigh Foss, who grabbed headlines in other news media last week after she became the first woman to rise to the rank of captain in the district.
Piechura said the fact Leigh Foss's promotion came within a couple of weeks of her husband's termination was strictly coincidental.
"The timing really sucked on that one. There was not any attempt to keep her on by promoting her. She's top-notch and was promoted strictly on her merits," Piechura said.