A D.C. firefighter was suspended indefinitely without pay after he called a local television station complaining that gloves issued to firefighters to protect against the AIDS virus leak, and that rescue workers were not being told when someone they treated carried the virus.
Greg Ricker of Engine Company 11 in Columbia Heights said he was told by a superior Tuesday night to go home until further notice after fire officials learned of his conversation with a producer for WJLA-TV (Channel 7).
Officials for the union that represents firefighters called the suspension a violation of Ricker's First Amendment rights to free speech, saying it highlights a lack of firm policy within the department on acquired immune deficiency syndrome. "It seems like nothing gets taken care of in the department unless the media get involved," said Tom Tippett, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 36.
But a fire department spokesman defended the suspension, saying the department has a right to control its employes' activities while they are on duty, and that Ricker's complaints mischaracterized department efforts to protect rescue personnel from exposure to AIDS.
"We like to think we've been pretty fair and pretty diligent in dealing with our firefighters' concerns," said Deputy Fire Chief Ray Alfred.
Ricker, a firefighter for 14 years, said his call to the television station was prompted by recent incidents in which firefighters assisting injured persons later found blood on their hands despite wearing rubber gloves issued by the department.
Also, Ricker said he and other firefighters were concerned about an incident in June when they were exposed to blood, but were not told until more than three weeks later that the injured person carried the AIDS virus.
The firefighters involved have since been required to undergo tests for the virus, Ricker said. "There is no training in dealing with people who are possibly carrying the disease," he said. "It's totally unsafe and adds stress to the job."
Union officials referred Ricker's suspension to the American Civil Liberties Union. Art Spitzer, legal director for the organization's Washington chapter, said lawyers there had not yet decided whether to take the case. But he pointed to a Supreme Court ruling that expanded First Amendment rights of public employes to speaking to the press.
Alfred also disputed a union contention that the department "has no policy" for notifying rescue workers who are exposed to AIDS carriers. He said the department relies on local hospital administrators to notify city ambulance supervisors. Alfred said that until Ricker called Channel 7, fire safety officials had received "no complaints, written or verbal" about department-issued gloves leaking. He said that on Tuesday the department's safety officer began testing the gloves by filling a sample with water. No leaks have been found. "We're not going to run out every time someone complains about a piece of equipment and buy something different," Alfred said. "The taxpayers of this city can't afford it."