The apparent suicide of recently fired Monarch Fire District Battalion Chief Fred Goodson got me thinking about several things, including my career in the world of public safety.
I spent 30 years being a cop. That included spending ten years doing fire and arson investigations off-duty mostly for insurance companies and teaching fire investigation to firefighters and police detectives.
I also wrote articles for fire and police management magazines. This allowed me to travel all over the country and the world visiting police and fire stations. I got to know a lot of police officers and firefighters over the years.
As a cop I loved what I did. You had the best seat for one of the greatest shows in the world.
Perhaps the worst parts of the job were when political intervention interfered with you doing the right thing in performing your job and supervising other public safety employees.
Often there was much more tension and drama inside the police station or firehouse than there was breaking up a fight or putting out a fire.
Recently, when the command staff of Chesterfield-based Monarch Fire Protection District was fired over discrimination against women firefighters/paramedics, I immediately thought, “What happened and how bad was it?”
Over the years, I had watched African-Americans and women move into the world of policing and firefighting. It was not an easy transition to watch.
For women at fire stations, it was resentful firefighters who learned they could no longer bring Penthouse Magazines to work. Some still did though, and would read the letters aloud of some deviant activity—and ask co-workers’ opinions.
It was not uncommon for new female firefighters to find their equipment tampered with. Despite the fact they had passed difficult physical tests like the men, some co-workers were never going to accept them.
Donna Kessler and Dana Buckley were two Monarch firefighters who sued the district in 2006 for discrimination and harassment. Kessler came to the district in 1996 from the St. Louis Fire Department EMS division, where she worked on ambulances responding to medical emergencies. Kessler finished at the top of her class in the fire academy.
Buckley joined in 2001. She came from the St. Charles fire Department where she had been a firefighter/paramedic.
Their complaints spell out regular harassment by command officers from everything to being disciplined for not changing from a PT workout uniform to a regular uniform when walking from the exercise room into the kitchen for a drink of water, to not being allow to train as much as males prior to promotion tests. At one time they were assigned to a different fire station every day they reported for work, while the male firefighters had permanent station assignments.
Fred Goodson’s name came up early when Kessler claimed that Goodson called her after she had passed both the Monarch written tests and physical agility tests, Kessler claimed Goodson called her telling her not to quit her current job with the City of St. Louis because he did not think she would be able to complete the fire academy. She turned out to be the valedictorian of her class at the fire academy.
Kessler claimed this was followed by the department and supervisors ignoring her complaints of unwanted sexual advances by a fellow firefighter that even included gifts being sent to her. Then there were unfair shift assignments. She made a good case along with Buckley.
Goodson’s name also came up in 2009 when it was alleged that he changed a favorable evaluation by Dana Buckley’s supervisor to an unfavorable one.
But perhaps the most troubling accusations were when both Kessler and Buckley reported their self-contained breathing apparatus and vehicles they were driving were tampered with. Goodson was accused of having knowledge or involvement.
I attend the hastily called public meeting where two of the three members of the Monarch Board of Directors were present and voted to fire Assistant Fire Chief Les Crews, Deputy Fire Chief Cary Spiegel, Battalion Chief Mike Davis and Goodson were fired. Fire Chief Chip Biele was allowed to retire.
There is a time to leave that many of us have trouble figuring out. I had to take a disability retirement as a police captain in 1997. Three years later I was able to pass a physical for a newly created law enforcement position. I left an interesting job as a reporter and went back to a law enforcement job.
I quit that job in 2005 and moved back to the St. Louis area in 2006. I renewed my Missouri Police License, but by the time I turned 58 I realized due to my health I had no business going back to police work.
I thought about this when I saw that all the command officers at Monarch each had 30 or more years on the job and were in their late 50s or early 60s. They were eligible for full retirement. They had to see the termination action heading their way after the Court of Appeals upheld a jury award against the Fire District and in favor of Kessler and Buckley. Why didn’t they retire? Being fired they still get their benefits but it would have been a cleaner end to their careers.
Perhaps they were being stubborn or didn’t think it was time to leave. But 30 years takes its toll on you even if you don’t want to admit it.
In the case of 61-year-old Fred Goodson I had to wonder why he would take his own life, after helping so many people over the course of his career.. Was it because he knew he would never get back on the job? Was it because he was ashamed of the treatment of the women firefighters?
Was the jury verdict, the payout, the action of the fire board, the appearance of wrongdoing—whether it happened or not—too much to live with?