LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) – The La Crosse fire chief said a 13-year-old fire department employee, with a track record of deceptive behavior, should be fired.
Chief Gregg Cleveland is looking to terminate the employment of firefighter Tracy Johnston.
A 13 page statement of charges, written by Cleveland, said the final straw was a training exercise in March where Johnston withheld information about her physical abilities that could have put her team in danger.
Deceptive behavior, self-interest and a pattern of poor judgment are phrases Cleveland uses in his charges.
Department policy said when a firefighter cannot perform a duty, that firefighter needs to tell a supervisor so the crew's safety is not jeopardized.
“Firefighter Johnston knew she was not physically able to compete the high-rise training evolution,” Cleveland wrote. “She knew she had physical limitations.”
The charges said Johnston — who just came from back from one month of medical leave — was cleared to work. So she participated in a drill where she had to climb 10 stories in full gear, wearing an air pack and carrying equipment. She stopped twice, gasping for air, and a division chief pulled her from the exercise,
Johnston even told firefighters she didn’t think she'd make it to the top, according to the charges.
"That's the claim. We don't believe it to be anywhere near true,” said Tom Kieffer, Johnston's attorney.
Kieffer said the chief's claims aren't justified.
"She vaguely recalls saying something to the effect, 'Gee, I'm wondering if I'm going to be able to do this after coming off leave for a month'... She has absolutely no idea that she cannot perform that task,” Kieffer said. “This is where the fire chief is making the leap of faith saying, 'She knew she couldn't complete that task.' That's totally untrue."
After the drill, Johnston's doctor said she still had a clean bill of health. The city sent her to a different doctor who gave her a physical and deemed Johnston unfit for duty.
The charges will be taken up by the Police and Fire Commission.
"This would be similar to a board of education perhaps dealing with a teacher. This would be similar to a city council perhaps dealing with a department head,” said Doug Happel, who's on the commission.
The commission has already appointed a hearing examiner to collect the facts.
Johnston is currently on leave, but she's not being paid.
She does have a history of infraction on the job. In March 2004, Johnston was written up for misusing sick leave. She did that again in October 2010 and was warned any more rule infractions could result in disciplinary action, including discharge.
In January 2012, the chief suspended Johnston for a full-shift for using Facebook on tax-payer time and posting comments criticizing a conversation she had with a division chief.
She was given a last chance agreement and disciplinary two-day suspension in August 2012 for posting inappropriate department-related information on her social media website during her workday.
But in November 2013, Chief Cleveland wrote Johnston up for failing to properly follow the city's leave of absence procedure.
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