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Tampa firefighters reminded not to talk to media in wake of harassment allegations

TAMPA — Tampa firefighters are being reminded of a city policy prohibiting them from talking to the media after several female firefighters went public about privacy issues, outdated facilities, harassment and retaliation in the department.

Fire Chief Tom Forward issued three memos last week after Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced changes "to accommodate all" at Tampa Fire Rescue, prompted largely by a series of recent reports in the Tampa Bay Times.

One of the memos sent to all personnel bans firefighters from speaking with the media "without the prior consent of the Fire Chief or his designee.'' It also restricts social media interactions.

City of Tampa spokeswoman Ali Glisson said this is a standing policy that "was reissued in light of some recent questions."

The two other memos update the sexual harassment policy and outline a new process for documenting issues. Both changes allow fire Chief Tom Forward and his senior staff to be more involved and to ensure he is made aware of employee issues, Glisson said.

"He can track to see if there's some sort of pattern across the board," Glisson said. "He knows for certain, himself, what's going on in these fire stations, and he can take action immediately."

The changes came after the Times detailed concerns from several female firefighters about discrimination and a hostile work environment, including the lack of designated female bathrooms at a majority of fire stations and retaliation for reporting problems. The women came forward after news broke last month of a personnel chief retiring amid a sexual harassment investigation.

In response, Buckhorn announced additional diversity training for firefighters and a $160,000 construction project to install 6-foot-high partitions in the dorms at 16 of the city's 22 firehouses.

Buckhorn acknowledged he was not aware of the issues leading to these changes until he read accounts from firefighters in the Times.

"When I was made aware of some of the concerns of individual firefighters, I made the decision that we were going to address it and we were going to fix it," Buckhorn said last week.

The policies outlined in the recent memos are not intended to prevent employees from sharing their experiences or speak on their own behalf, Glisson said. It is to ensure the department's official stances are conveyed in a clear and consistent manner, she said.

Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione said the media policy is not unusual.

"I guess (the mayor) prefers to get the information from those within the ranks of Tampa Fire Rescue and not read about it within the newspaper," Montelione said. "It would always be my preference, and I'm sure others would have the preference, that if issues came up they were addressed in-house before it rose to that level."

Since the memo was issued, at least two firefighters have asked for permission to speak with the media.

Firefighter Tanja Vidovic, who previously voiced concerns to the Times about privacy, women's facilities and retaliation, requested to do an on-camera interview with a news station. She was denied because cameras are not allowed in the station without notification. The response would have been different if cameras were not involved, Glisson said.

Capt. Danielle Spradlin was approved to send an email to the Times outlining her positive experiences.

"During my 24 years on the job, I have never had an issue with a lack of gender-assigned bathrooms and partitions in the dorms," Spradlin said. "As far as the open dorms are concerned, the only issue that I have ever had is wishing that guy or girl next to me would stop snoring — and partitions aren't going to fix that."

Buckhorn reiterated that though the city is making policy changes and addressing concerns, he does not think there are systemic problems.

"In an agency that large, you're always going to have disgruntled employees," Buckhorn said. "We've got a few chronic whiners within the department that complain about everything. That's always going to be the case."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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