EVERETT — An Everett firefighter tasked with training new employees resigned from the department earlier this year amid an investigation into persistent sexual harassment of recruits.
Chau Nguyen, who was hired by the Everett Fire Department in 2018, faced allegations from several recruit firefighters of inappropriate behavior at the Snohomish County Fire Training Academy, including comments like “look at that ass” and wanting to have sex with new hires, as well as unwanted touching, according to city documents obtained by The Daily Herald.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Nguyen declined to comment. In 2018, he was featured in The Daily Herald as he graduated from the academy.
One of those new hires following the same path was Keanan Metcalfe, who Nguyen helped train at the academy south of Everett after South County Fire hired him in the summer of 2019. Last month, Metcalfe sued the city of Everett and South County Fire, his employer, in Snohomish County Superior Court for their handling of his concerns. Nguyen continued working at the academy long after Metcalfe complained about his behavior, according to the complaint.
Nguyen voluntarily resigned in January.
In a statement, a city spokesperson said “the City of Everett has and remains committed to providing a workplace free of harassment and discrimination.” The city declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit since it is pending.
Similarly, South County Fire declined to comment on the litigation, but a spokesperson noted the agency is “firmly committed to complying with all laws regarding discrimination and harassment.”
Metcalfe is represented by Mallory Allen from the Seattle law firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala.
Allen argued Nguyen’s actions were “criminal and probably should be dealt with in a different manner,” while the city and South County Fire were negligent.
“This is about those people who were in positions of power and had the ability to ensure that employees, subordinates, probationary firefighters were not sexually harassed, that they had a safe working environment,” she said. “And they, in our estimation, badly breached that duty.”
‘It was very open’
Fighting fires is all Metcalfe has wanted to do since he was 12.
Friends had told him about the camaraderie of the job, the fun he’d have. That family atmosphere enticed him.
“With being a firefighter, you spend a third of your life being in a firehouse because you work 24-hour shifts,” he said in an interview last week. “Especially if you’re working for a 24-hour period, if you don’t enjoy those that you’re around, it’s going to be a long 24 hours.”
At 17, Metcalfe started his firefighting career in Alaska. About a decade ago, he moved to Arlington, where he worked part-time for half a dozen years.
What Metcalfe, now 29, experienced at the four-month training for his job with South County Fire was unlike anything else he’d dealt with before, he told The Herald.
Nguyen repeatedly made inappropriate remarks to Metcalfe, including about the fly of the recruit’s pants and them being together sexually, Metcalfe said. The trainer also opened the Velcro fly of Metcalfe’s firefighting pants and made an explicit comment about his genitals, according to the lawsuit. No other trainers acted like this, he noted.
Nguyen acted this way in front of other recruits and instructors.
“It wasn’t behind closed doors, by any means,” Metcalfe said. “It was very open and apparent to all people there.”
Metcalfe wasn’t sure what to do. Nguyen, who was training to be an instructor at the time, was his superior. He was a probationary hire.
“It’s a paramilitary learning environment when you go to the academy,” Metcalfe said. “He was part of the instructor group and it’s expected that you show those individuals respect and listen to their guidance.”
So Metcalfe tried to avoid confrontation. But he decided to report the Velcro incident in writing.
Reporting that was uncomfortable and stressful, but Metcalfe didn’t want other recruits to “be in the same position that I was,” he said.
In an interview with Everett fire officials and the city’s Human Resources director, Nguyen acknowledged some of Metcalfe’s allegations were true and apologized, according to the investigation. However, Nguyen reportedly said some of his behavior was taken out of context. He also said he was trying to ease the recruit’s tension. He wanted the new hires to have fun.
Nguyen also reportedly said he thought the complaints were lodged because he is gay and other employees didn’t approve.
Everett HR Director Kandy Bartlett found Metcalfe’s complaint was substantiated. She deemed Nguyen’s behavior inappropriate. Since he was new and leadership had commended his work, he was ordered to receive verbal coaching and counseling, Bartlett wrote in her report.
He was allowed to continue working at the academy, according to the lawsuit.
The city and South County Fire knew about Nguyen’s behavior, “but failed to take reasonably prompt and adequate corrective action to address Nguyen’s behavior and to protect” new employees from sexual harassment, the complaint claims.
That counseling included descriptions of the power dynamic between trainers and trainees, according to a June 2022 report Bartlett wrote to the state Department of Health. Nguyen acknowledged he understood the dynamic.
In a later email, the fire department’s assistant chief noted he also discussed Nguyen’s treatment of new employees.
“He will strive to treat future probationary firefighters with respect and be cognizant of the potential for misunderstanding that might be created by attempts at humor,” Mike Calvert, assistant chief of operations, wrote of Nguyen in the email.
Nguyen also worked as an instructor at Everett’s academy for recruits after they finished the academy, according to city documents.
In December 2021, three new complaints were brought against Nguyen alleging inappropriate behavior toward probationary firefighters. He was placed on leave with pay. But less than two weeks later, he resigned. More allegations came after he left, including that Nguyen grabbed a new employee’s testicles, pulled off another’s towel in the shower and laid on top of one in the middle of the night, according to Bartlett’s report.
“There is substantial evidence provided by multiple individuals that Mr. Nguyen only engaged in unethical and unprofessional behavior towards probationary employees,” Bartlett wrote. “He acted one way in front of probationary employees and another way in front of supervisors and company officers. Probationary employees can be terminated for any reason during their trial period, and are therefore less likely to complain, particularly about the conduct of an experienced firefighter with a role in their training.”
In his resignation email, Nguyen noted he was leaving for “personal reasons.”
This article has been updated to clarify whose actions Allen sees as potentially criminal.
Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; email@example.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.