Good judgment is an essential trait in a fire chief or police chief — too much can go wrong if it is missing. That's why it is important for Tarpon Springs to thoroughly investigate fire Chief Stephen Moreno's behavior at a recent fatal house fire. Did his inappropriate and apparently alcohol-fueled behavior contribute to the tragic outcome of the Jan. 14 fire? Was it a one-time transgression, or have there been other signs that he may lack the requisite good judgment?
Moreno told the St. Petersburg Times that he did some "unorthodox things" and made "a bit of an error." But it was more than a bit:
• He drove to the fire scene in his city vehicle after drinking. It is not known whether he was too impaired to drive legally.
• Dressed in street clothes, he charged into the fire scene without identifying himself to firefighters from other jurisdictions who were fighting the fire and without putting on any of the required protective gear.
• He did not officially assume command of the firefighting — another fire officer, Tarpon Springs District Chief David Sharp, was the incident commander — but he started issuing orders that conflicted with Sharp's orders. That violates firefighting protocols.
• He had to shout the orders, because he failed to bring a radio so he could communicate directly with firefighters. He also could not communicate with the incident commander.
• He allowed his wife, who came with him and some said also smelled of alcohol, to wander around the fire scene and try to chat with working crews.
The situation was hectic even before Moreno, who was off duty, came onto the scene. Seventeen units from five different fire departments arrived to find the two-story home of Dr. Frederick Roever and his wife, Patricia, engulfed in flames. It was dark, and the house, set off the road and surrounded by large trees, was difficult to access. Mrs. Roever was standing outside the house, but Dr. Roever was missing. His body was found the next day inside the gutted home.
The hectic situation apparently escalated after Moreno arrived. Some firefighters didn't know Moreno and were perplexed that two civilians were wandering around the scene, one of them issuing orders. Even when word got around that the man was Tarpon Springs' fire chief, his conflicting orders, and his apparent inebriation, left firefighters unsure what to do.
Members of the Palm Harbor fire department, who arrived early on the scene along with Tarpon Springs crews, complained about Moreno to their chief the next day, saying Moreno had violated protocols and put others on the scene at risk. One firefighter wrote that it was "a huge step back in time for the progress that Pinellas County has made in fire operations." Palm Harbor fire Chief Jim Angle made a formal complaint to Tarpon Springs and called for an analysis of the incident. The fire service is a close brotherhood, and complaints such as these are rare. That they were formalized in writing is an indication of the seriousness of Moreno's behavior.
Tarpon Springs' mayor and city manager launched an internal investigation after Moreno confessed to them that he had a "lapse in judgment" and had consumed alcohol before going to the fire. Moreno has been placed on paid leave until the investigation is finished.
Moreno's five years with the Tarpon Springs department have been progressive ones, with no indication of systemic problems. But a community puts great faith in the skills, professionalism and good judgment of its fire chief. A thorough investigation will help determine whether Tarpon Springs' faith in Moreno was misplaced.