The master inventory list at the Halifax Fire Department includes fire gear recorded as being issued to firefighters but which was never received by them, says a formal complaint filed with the city’s auditor general. The missing gear is potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, implies the complaint.
The complaint was filed by firefighter Blair Cromwell, who also has filed a human rights complaint charging racial discrimination against the department, and who is one of seven people now being sued for defamation by fire chief Bill Mosher and deputy chief Steve Thurber for comments initially posted anonymously on The Coast’s website. Mosher and Thurber learned Cromwell’s identity after obtaining a court order requiring The Coast to turn over the IP addresses of the commenters.
Allegations of the improper inventory list were raised in Cromwell’s human rights complaint filed in June, 2008, which has been reviewed by The Coast. In the human rights complaint, Cromwell alleges that the faulty inventory list was used to deny him safety gear.
Firefighters are regularly issued bunker gear---boots, helmet, jackets and the like---but in 2006, Cromwell alleges, he was denied a pair of pants because the inventory list said he was issued a pair in 2003, a pair he says he never received. Firefighters have access to their own inventory lists via computer terminals in the stations, and Cromwell and others discovered what they say are inconsistencies.
In 2008 Cromwell brought his concerns about the bunker gear inventory to councillor Bill Karsten, who was then chair of the council’s Audit Committee. Karsten met with Cromwell at the Spryfield fire station on January 17 of that year, and Cromwell followed that meeting up with an email on January 22. With no response over the next 10 months, Cromwell again mailed Karsten on November 25, asking if anything had come from his complaint. “I have checked with our Management at our Business Systems and Control Group and learn that the information or allegations are still being examined,” responded Karsten on December 1. “I also understand that should any employee bring forward issues like this, they may not necessarily be entitled to the results based on rights of individuals involved in the investigation.”
Karsten confirmed Tuesday that he met with Cromwell and alerted Cathie Osbourne, the leader of HRM’s business systems and control group, which deals with potential auditing issues.
But the equipment that Cromwell says he and other firefighters never received remains on the inventory list as delivered to them.
Cromwell reiterated his concerns about inaccurate inventories in a meeting with auditor general Larry Munroe earlier this month, and further spells them out in a formal complaint letter sent to Munroe filed last week.
“As I explained to you,” Cromwell tells Munroe in the letter, “within the [inventory] list… there appear to be many cases of firefighters having been issued bunker gear during the year of 2003, as well as other gear requested during other periods of time. After viewing the list, phone calls were made to many firefighters to determine whether or not they had received the bunker gear that was supposed to have been issued in 2003. Of all firefighters queried, none indicated receipt of the gear.”
Bunker gear can cost up to $2,000 per firefighter, and the Fire Department employs 490 career firefighters, writes Cromwell. “I believe this to be a serious discrepancy that cannot be explained away as simply bad record keeping. Where is the bunker gear or the money that was allocated for the purchase?”
The fire department has a history of questionable purchasing. As reported by the Chronicle-Herald, from 2003 to 2008 HFD made 74 separate purchases totalling over $55,000 from a company owned by deputy chief Steve Thurber’s brother, Darrell Thurber. Most of those purchases did not have to go out to bid because they fell under the city’s $1,000 tendering threshold, but two of the purchases contravened that city policy.
In January 2008, local boat builders complained to city council that the tender for a fireboat for HFD’s use appeared to have been written to favour a boat built in California, and that the design for the boat was unsafe. But council declined to interfere in the tendering process. Later that year, the boat was tested on Halifax Harbour and flipped over with eight people on board. The city subsequently refused to pay for the boat.
According to the complaint letter to Munroe, the auditor general was aware of the problem and had already asked fire managers about it. “When we discussed the matter of the discrepancies on the list, you had mentioned that your office was informed by the fire service that they were aware of issues with their record-keeping being inaccurate. My question to you as auditor general would be: Why would the fire service rely on a faulty and highly suspicious inventory list to deny legitimate safety gear and, worse, to harass firefighters?”
Cromwell says that it is “common knowledge” among management and staff at the fire department that the inventory list is incorrect, but that no effort has been made to correct it.
City officials have not immediately responded to a request for comment.
Cromwell’s allegations have not been proven in a court of law, by the auditor general or by the Human Rights Commission; auditor general Larry Munroe has not commented publicly on them.
Update, Friday 1pm:
HRM spokesperson Shaune MacKinlay responds:
"I've spoken with the Chief and our CAO.
"As you may know Cathie Osborne is now with the Auditor General's office, and City Hall does not comment for the Auditor General's office. Saying that, however, any issues found to be of concern by the former Business Systems and Control group would have been reported to our Audit Committee and the CAO. The CAO is not aware of any issue regarding bunker gear for firefighters. The Fire Chief is also unaware of any inventory control issues for bunker gear.
"The gear is tailor made for individual firefighters and delivered to them with their names on the gear as well as on the tags inside."
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