Not everyone loves firefighters

City Hall’s independent monitor finds that discourtesy is among the most common gripes against Fire Department

One night after firefighters prevented a four-alarm blaze from destroying Blue Diamond’s almond factory, the Sacramento City Council discussed a 35% jump in complaints against the Fire Department.

The criticism was measured in a new report by the Office of Public Safety and Accountability, which provides independent oversight of both police and fire personnel. The report documented 86 complaints covering 186 specific allegations against firefighters in 2018, which was markedly up from 2017. By contrast, the Sacramento Police Department only notched a 3% increase in complaints.

Of the complaints, 24 were sustained, 17 weren’t sustained and 14 were determined to be unfounded. The rest were either reclassified or still under investigation. The top complaint against firefighters was “discourtesy,” which was also the main gripe against police last year.

OPSA director Francine Tournour told council members she’s working with Fire Department management to determine why the numbers were so high compared to the two previous years.

“We don’t yet know the cause,” she said.

Referencing Tournour’s earlier remarks that many complaints against police officers were resolved by simply allowing the complainant to review body-worn camera footage of their incidents alongside internal affairs investigators, Councilman Larry Carr asked Tournour if firefighters were at a disadvantage because they don’t wear body cams.

“How are you able to substantiate?” Carr asked.

“When it comes to the Fire Department, we have to rely on who was in earshot and what type of witnesses were present,” Tournour said. “That’s why you’ll see a high number of ‘not sustained’ in the fire field, because you can’t prove it one way or the other.”

Carr reiterated that he wants the public to be able to log positive encounters with police and firefighters, so city leaders have a sense of those trends beyond anecdotal stories the public safety agencies choose to share on their social media accounts.

“We don’t have an opportunity to see, in a holistic way, the positive encounters,” Carr noted.

Councilman Steve Hansen agreed, adding that Tournour’s work already eases a certain amount tension.

“That customer service gives those people confidence that, even in instances where it’s sometimes unsubstantiated—maybe the evidence is unclear—that they’ve been heard by somebody impartial,” Hansen said.