Firehouse Theater

In a familiar-sounding case of mayoral assertiveness, the state fines Seattle, citing Greg Nickels' interference in the Station 31 health probe.

When Mayor Greg Nickels interfered last year in an investigation of illnesses and deaths, which some thought could be linked to the environment of a Northgate firehouse, firefighters were so incensed that they planned to embarrass him by abandoning the station. They laid plans to set up a tent city near Station 31, at 1319 N. Northgate Way, and then call in the media to hear their plea, according to an e-mail circulated last year to top fire officials.

Those and other details of the mayor's battle with the Seattle Fire Department and its union are outlined in a state Department of Labor and Industries report, released last week and running more than 600 pages, that examines the mayor's interference in the safety probe. It suggests that Nickels under­estimated the emotional impact on firefighters when stopping the safety investigation. In the view of some fire officials, Nickels meddled with a life-and-death issue by overasserting the top-down management style typical of his administration. One senior official told state probers, according to their notes: "Every decision made at upper levels of the SFD is approved by the mayor's office. It is a very hands-on administration. The mayor has all the department heads' resignations in his drawer." (The mayor's office denies that.)

In July 2003, Nickels quietly ordered a stop to the fire department's health and safety division probe of what has turned out to be as many as 25 cases of serious illness—mostly cancer—among former, current, and retired Station 31 personnel over 15 years. Though he now says that his goal was to better focus the safety investigation and bring in outside help, and that he worried that private medical records were being exposed without authorization, Nickels' action stunned some fire officials. The state last week concluded that the mayor's office intervened illegally, tagging the city with a $3,000 fine.

The Station 31 environmental-health controversy has been smoldering at least since 2000, under then-Mayor Paul Schell. It regained momentum after more former Station 31 crewmembers were found to have died from cancer. Nickels says the firehouse has been given "a clean bill of health," even though studies are not complete. Firefighters say they're aware their profession is at high risk to hazardous, on-the-job environmental exposures and aren't panicking over Station 31 as the possible cancer-cluster cause, but that the mayor's actions forced them to consider the extreme measure of a tent city protest.

The mayor's move came shortly after Station 31 Capt. Bruce Amer, with the concurrence of Assistant Chief Michael Johnson, recommended in early July that the station be vacated until its environmental safety was assured. Nickels strongly opposed the idea, though other stations had been shut down in the past because of environmental hazards such as asbestos. Andrew Lofton, then Nickels' chief of city department operations, told fire officials there was no need to close the station, questioned the usefulness of further review, turned down fire department proposals for taking a new investigative tack, tried to rewrite a report on the station house's dilemma, and got in the way of fire and union officials who opposed the mayor's tactics, according to state officials who investigated the interference by the mayor's office.

In one incident, Lofton shut a meeting room door on Amer, excluding him while Lofton and others discussed the station's fate. Both the mayor's office and the city attorney's office excluded union personnel from some of their meetings with fire officials, igniting a feud the mayor's office ultimately lost.

Angry and embarrassed by continued rebuffs by the mayor's office, Amer informed a deputy chief and another top official in a Sept. 26 e-mail that he would abandon Station 31 anyway: "In early to mid-October we plan to vacate the building and set up a tent city to house our members until the department and city properly address the health issue at this station. We will need your assistance in providing the necessary phone, computer and other communication lines into our makeshift station. Regarding the communication lines we are planning a temporary press area and it would be helpful if they could have some basic communications services in that area as well. We would like to know what resources may be available to assist us so that we can maintain the current high level of service to the citizens of Northgate and north Seattle . . . We are planning a news conference in conjunction with our move out of the station which may include family members of deceased firefighters as well as survivors from Station 31 so we need to put some thought into sanitation facilities as well."

A few days after the Amer memo began circulating, and more than two months after Nickels had stopped the probe, then–Fire Chief Gary Morris, who had reluctantly carried out Nickels' shut-down order in July, trekked to the mayor's office and had a heart-to-heart with Nickels. Morris thought the department should have led the probe with outside help and was under pressure from the rank-and-file and even his deputy chiefs. He was being challenged in particular by SFD veteran A.D. (Alan) Vickery, deputy chief in charge of health investigations and homeland security, who told state investigators he had a falling out with Morris and was "personally disappointed" with the lack of commitment to safety issues. Morris, in turn, was upset that Vickery had initially contacted the mayor's office about the station's condition, rather than go through channels. He took Vickery off the station case altogether. Morris explained in an e-mail that when he took over as chief in 2001, the "one thing" he asked of all his chiefs was "no surprises, no leaks, no set-ups, no whining." He told Vickery: "Direct contact with the mayor's staff without my knowledge was outside the protocol."

In his October meeting with Nickels, according to notes kept by state investigators who interviewed Morris, the chief told Nickels, "Mayor, I am not sure what Lofton is telling you, but our credibility is on the line—please reconsider our proposal of mid-July." Morris, who retired last January, told the state Labor and Industries probers that Lofton, doing the mayor's bidding, "was very resistant to any investigation, did not believe there was a problem at the fire station & [saw] no need for further testing," according to investigators' notes. "Lofton continued to resist further study of the station in August. He and Marilyn Sherron [an assistant city attorney] tried to rewrite [a city/county health doctor's] report to remove the recommendation to study the building. This went on all through August." The recommendation ultimately was not rewritten. At his October face-to-face with Nickels, Morris told the mayor that the firefighters' union was filing an interference complaint with Labor and Industries. At that point, "Things began to happen and [the] task force was put together," the state investigators say Morris told them. "As a result, Morris invited Local 27 to join the task force."

City Hall's sudden movement and launch of the task force, which is still studying the station's environmental health, staved off the embarrassing spectacle of Seattle firefighters bunking in a tent city, though a press conference was held to outline the health issue. Morris has been replaced by popular interim Chief Greg Dean, and the union got a measure of revenge when the state concluded that the mayor's office acted illegally, as the union had claimed. The mayor's task force, meanwhile, has adopted much of the strategy proposed by the fire department when the probe was stopped.

In fining the city, Labor and Industries found that "the Mayor's Office and management of the Seattle Fire Department interfered with the safety office in its investigation of the Station 31 health concerns . . . There is a clear line of command from the Mayor's Office through SFD management to Chief [John] Gablehouse [senior safety officer] and Chief Vickery," the safety division head. Ironically, though the safety unit's probe was stopped by the mayor in part because some wanted the firehouse vacated, Gablehouse told state investigators he was actually trying to make a case that the firehouse was safe.

When the preliminary findings were first announced three weeks ago, Nickels' office said it would vigorously challenge the state's conclusion. But it quietly let that deadline pass last week. "It's more important to move on and continue with the [task force] investigation of Station 31," says mayoral spokesperson Marianne Bichsel, who adds that Nickels still disagrees with the state's findings.

She says Lofton's intent, in acting "with the mayor's consent and direction," was to widen the investigation by shutting it down. "There were three separate investigations internally," she said. "We needed to get a handle on all of this, to bring in outside experts"—something the SFD safety department had earlier proposed. "Their investigation had to be stopped so we could expand it."

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