EVERETT — Three Everett firefighters were called out July 1 to help a homeless man who was drunk and lying on a downtown sidewalk.
They and others in the department had dealt with the man more than 100 times in the past. One of them, a fire captain, decided to drive the man nearly to Marysville and leave him underneath a bridge with two bottles of water on an 83-degree day.
The firefighters told Kirk Spencer, 51, not to come back to town and to “get off the sauce,” according to documents obtained by The Herald under state public records laws.
Then the crews omitted what happened from their logs. They didn’t consider Spencer a patient, so they reported that no patient had been treated or transported.
Others at the fire department were appalled and alerted their bosses.
After an investigation, the three firefighters received this discipline: The captain got a letter of reprimand. Two others were admonished in person.
“It is clear the actions that were taken in that incident were beyond what we consider to be reasonable,” Fire Chief Murray Gordon said. “Certainly outside of the department’s acceptable level of conduct.”
The three people involved are valued employees who help others every day, Gordon said.
“I seriously believe that. They made a mistake that day,” he said. “I believe we’ve handled (the investigation) appropriately from the very beginning. The message is clear that’s not a level of conduct that we will in any way condone and we’re going to move forward.”
Out of the public eye
Everett firefighters already had been called once that day to help Spencer, but determined he didn’t need medical care. About an hour later, at 11:40 a.m., the second 911 call came in about him.
Engine One was dispatched, with three firefighters on board: Capt. Curt Low, Andrew Denzel and Ken McMillen. They found Spencer lying on the sidewalk of the 3700 block of Broadway, not far from the local homeless shelter. They recognized him from previous contacts.
Low later wrote that he had handled 911 calls about Spencer dozens of times and knew he had been hit by a car on Broadway last year. Spencer has used a wheelchair, and the sight of him passed out in his chair prompted many of those calls. He wasn’t using the wheelchair that day, however.
Spencer’s address in court papers is listed as the Everett Gospel Mission. He has a lengthy history of contacts with local police, mainly for trespassing and drinking in public downtown. There’s a warrant out for his arrest.
During the July 1 incident, Spencer was described by the firefighters as drunk but alert and talking. He boarded the fire engine and firefighters fastened his seat belt. They drove northbound onto Highway 529, turning off on Spencer Island about a mile from the Marysville city limits.
During the five-mile drive, Low reportedly told his crew: “If you have a problem with this, let me know.”
Spencer was left in a grassy area in the shade underneath the highway, about 15 feet from the road. They helped him take off his coat.
Low, an Everett firefighter for 24 years, said it was safer there and “less conspicuous,” according to the documents.
Spencer reportedly told the crew the location they dropped him was fine and he was OK.
By the next evening, rumors about how the call was handled reached fire department bosses, including the chief. They started an internal investigation, trying to determine whether a patient had been abandoned.
“When we first learned of the incident, it was concerning to all of us,” Gordon said. “That was the reason for acting quickly.”
Low was put on paid leave for about a week while department supervisors conducted interviews and collected statements.
Normally, crews called for an intoxicated homeless person would conduct a basic medical evaluation and transport the person to the hospital if needed, assuming their medical assistance wasn’t turned down.
The firefighters told their bosses they had wanted to move Spencer out of the sun, away from alcohol, traffic and the public eye.
On July 4, Fire Marshal Rick Robinson conferred with Gordon about the incident, writing “this could constitute a serious violation of fire department policy, and therefore requires investigation.”
On July 6, another battalion chief wrote his bosses and questioned whether what happened had been legal. He wanted to make sure police were notified.
Everett police never were asked to investigate.
Fire department leaders talked about it, and based on the information they’d gathered, didn’t think the actions could be criminal, because the firefighters “believed that the person was not a patient,” the chief told The Herald.
Yet on July 7, Tim Key, the department’s division chief of emergency medical services, wrote that Low likely violated state codes governing how fire departments treat patients. In addition, Key was concerned that the crews did not properly document the encounter, calling the records “exceptionally sparse.”
“Without such documentation and with no explanation as to (Low’s) intent, it is difficult to see this episode as anything other than abandonment,” Key wrote.
He talked it over with Dr. Ron Brown, a longtime physician who oversees paramedic programs throughout Snohomish County. Moving patients in a fire engine, rather than an aid car or ambulance, is a discouraged practice, meant to be a last resort.
Brown told Key that what happened was “not acceptable from a medical ethics point of view.” However, Key wrote, the incident didn’t rise to the level of reporting it to the state Department of Health for a potential investigation into the firefighters’ status as medical care providers. Instead the Everett Fire Department decided to handle it “in house.”
“A good measuring stick”
Two lower-level supervisors decided on the discipline for the firefighters and Gordon concurred.
The discipline, described by the chief as being the lowest reasonable level, “was appropriate,” because the desired outcome is to change behaviors, he said.
The Everett Fire Department’s disciplinary practices have come under repeated scrutiny in recent years, in particular involving firefighters accused of misconduct.
Last year, former division Chief Pete Vier was demoted after being accused of stalking two women, among numerous other troubles on and off the job. In those cases, he was told to stay away from the women by avoiding Providence Regional Medical Center Everett and the city of Edmonds. He remains in jail serving time for unrelated convictions for communication with a minor for immoral purposes and promoting prostitution.
In the July case involving the homeless man, Low received a written reprimand, also known as a letter in his file.
“Ultimately, the officer, the captain, was responsible and that’s why his discipline was at a higher level,” Gordon said.
The other two firefighters, Denzel and McMillen, received “an oral reprimand.” The talks with the firefighters were documented in their files. Denzel has 10 years with the department; McMillen nearly eight. None of the three have received any previous discipline, officials said Wednesday.
“What we believe is an important element of this incident was their responsibility to speak up,” Gordon said.
A letter drafted last week was sent to fire department staff Wednesday to make clear that what happened with the homeless man was unacceptable. The letter, signed by Interim Assistant Chief Bob Edgley, shows that the command staff knew the incident had the potential to attract attention.
Firefighters are allowed to break with protocols when doing so protects the “safety, dignity and well-being of those we serve,” Edgley wrote.
“Your decisions and actions should be guided by the principle of doing what is in the best interest of the patient, the public, the department and the city,” the letter said. “A good measuring stick for these types of decisions is how they might look on the front page of the paper.”
At one point, Low was asked to write a memo and include his thoughts looking back at the incident.
“If given a redo, I would have relocated (Spencer) to a less remote location, yet out of harm’s way,” he wrote.
In other documents, Edgley described his concerns after Low’s interview. Low had talked openly to colleagues about what happened, yet did not follow policies in documenting his interactions with a patient, Edgley wrote. The two other firefighters on the engine should have spoken up.
“Again, from an outside perspective, the appearance of secrecy lends itself to additional suspicion,” Edgley wrote. “Transparency is essential to the public trust.”
On Monday, the firefighters union filed a grievance.
According to the union, the fire department violated policies in leveling the discipline. Lowe’s letter of reprimand should be removed from his file and he “should be made whole,” the grievance states.
Union President Paul Gagnon issued a statement Wednesday. Many of the homeless people they care for struggle with addiction, he said.
“We have developed personal relationships with many of these citizens to ensure their safety and the community’s safety,” he said. “We will continue to work with local law enforcement and city officials to ensure every consideration to improve public safety for every citizen is our top priority.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.