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Does new arson dog create hostile work environment?

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BRINNON, Wash. -- Western Washington now has it's very own K-9 arson investigator.

Allie is a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever and only one of two certified accelerant-detecting dogs in Washington state, but she's not being welcomed with opened arms by all.

Brinnon Fire Chief Patrick Nicholson is Allie's handler and she's always by his side -- except when he works for East Jefferson Fire Rescue.

When Nicholson is not working in Brinnon, he must leave Allie in her kennel at his home because Allie is not currently allowed inside any EJFR stations.

"It's ridiculous to prohibit Allie," said Nicholson. "I don't think pet dander or allergies is something that should prevent this asset from being able to work."

According to EJFR officials, the problem isn't the dog, it's the dander. Allie is a health risk for firefighters and allowing Allie indoors could place employees in constant threat to their health and safety because some people may be allergic, said an EJFR spokesperson.

Nicholson said EJFR officials believe Allie's presence would create a hostile work environment.

Nicholson said he offered to vacuum and clean up after Allie but it hasn't swayed EJFR officials.

The EJFR Board of Commissioners is debating a draft policy dealing with service animals. Still, Nicholson worries Allie will not be allowed to accompany him at work.

Officials from East Jefferson Fire Rescue declined an on-camera interview for this story.

The department defended its decision in a written statement which reads, in part: "We have employees for whom the presence of a dog is a health risk. For those employees, an animal in their workplace is not a positive presence, but rather a constant threat to their well-being and safety."

Nicholson remains hopeful the EJFR board will change its mind.

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7 comments

  • Dave

    Our accelerant canine has had the exact opposite effect of a “hostile work environment.” At a job that is consistently among the top for most stressful, it is a form of therapy and stress relief having a friendly working dog around. Therapy dogs are a proven success. The airlines even allow therapy pets on planes because their positive effects outweigh the negative. Would you rather have itchy eyes or a hysterical passenger on a plane? Simply petting or throwing the ball to Allie can temporarily break the vicious loop of negative things we have seen on the job. If they are truly concerned about the well-being of their employees, they can do a little research and they will see suicide among firefighters due to the stressful work environment is more prevalent as well as more of a concern then pet allergies. Also, what about our duty to serve the public? The positive effects of an accelerant canine speak for themselves. Cutting arson by as much as 50% WILL save lives and property. If you are more concerned about allergies, then unfortunately you may not be cut out for the job. If your employees have pet allergies, provide them with allergy pill or come up with a pill that cuts arson by 50% and addresses firefighters having one of the top most stressful jobs.

  • Colleen

    What about the fact that Mr. Nicholson was hired by East Jefferson Fire Rescue as a Fire Fighter/Paramedic, not an Arson Investigator. I would say 85-90% of the calls are medical calls. With that being said would the dog be kenneled all day long while he is running aid calls and doing medical and fire training? What happens when Mr. Nicholson has to do a 6-12 hour transports to Seattle, Monroe, Bremerton, Tacoma, etc. Will the dog be in his kennel at the station no way to eat, relieve herself or get water. Those are the real issues for me, will the care of the dog be left up to the staff there if there is any or will Mr. Nicholson no longer go on these calls? East Jefferson Fire Rescue is a busy department for being in a rural community and some days the crews don’t get dinner or eat on the fly, there are times when they are out of the station for long periods of time. How is he going to have time to train the dog and have her out of her kennel? I would understand Mr. Nicholson’s point if he was hired as an arson investigator but that’s not his current job with East Jefferson Fire Rescue.

    • Patrick

      Your comment isn’t germane to the topic of this article regarding a hostile work environment; But I have a reply. I was indeed hired in 2007 as a Firefighter Paramedic. Over the years, EJFR approved training requests and has spent thousands of dollars training me as a Certified Fire Investigator, and even hosted its own Fire Investigation training seminars. I am assigned to conduct fire investigations regularly on and off duty by Chief Officers. I have also been appointed as the agency Communications Officer and was not specifically hired for that position. Many other career Firefighters and Volunteers have specific job assignments, of which they were not specifically hired for. Examples include a career person hired as a Firefighter Paramedic, but is tasked with the Wellness Program, and a Firefighter EMT hired as such, but tasked with the breathing air program, to name a few. The fact is that I do officially represent EJFR as an Arson Investigator and am the only dual certified Investigator within the agency.

      As for the health of Allie, it is not uncommon or unhealthy for a canine to be kenneled for six hours. Water is made available as well. In K9 Handler school, the dogs were routinely kenneled for 4-6 hours at a time. There is no arrangement for me to be exempt from handling normal calls for service.

      I have multiple avenues to take in the event of a call taking me out of service for several hours. Another agency has offered use of a commercial kennel where Allie can be dropped off quickly nearby, other shift employees have voluntarily offered assistance, and I have arrangements for someone to come care for her or take her home if needed; Long 6 plus hour events do not occur frequently.

      Training Allie is a daily activity, which begins when we wake up and prior to work. During the day, a few 2-6 minute drills are all that is necessary to maintain her abilities. More intense drills are conducted away from the Fire Station and at Fire Scenes.

      There are 89 other active Arson Dog Teams in the county and those agencies successfully developed policy that accommodates the canine – both larger and smaller agencies have successfully integrated canines; EJFR is not unlike many other agencies in the country. The benefits to the community, schools, crime deterrence, and insurance ratings for constituents need to be considered as well as the investigatory benefits to determining arson or simply ruling out the presence of ignitable liquids to strengthen a case file.

      Only a couple of the 7 career staff on duty during my shift would be in the presence of Allie. I typically work with 1 other career member at my station, and there are 3 staffed stations. Not all employees are in proximity or even assigned to the station that I work out of. These are public safety professionals who are in peoples homes, with pets, every day and in the back of an ambulance in close proximity to patients who own pets for several hours at a time, multiple times per shift. Certain employees expressed concern over allergies; If your allergies are so severe that it affects your work, you should be consulting a medical professional and possibly be prescribed medications to preempt your reactions. If these allergies cannot be mitigated, perhaps you are unfit for duty. Health insurance and annual physical examinations are available to all employees.

      What was your statistical source for determining that 85%-90% of the calls for service are medical? It is true that agencies nation wide, EJFR included, do run more EMS calls than fire responses, but that call load is divided by shift, station, and unit.

      I appreciate your concerns and hope that I have helped you understand the other side of the program. I am not minimizing concerns, but addressing them.

      Allie is an invaluable asset, which reduces scene time, saving the department money in staffing and overtime. She also tells us where evidence is located, so we can collect it and send known “hot” samples to the crime lab, saving money in lab fees as well. She will assist the county and city in prosecuting arson cases and bringing those who commit the crime to justice. Ancillary benefits are in the schools, teaching about fire safety, the crime of arson, and deterring would-be arsonists. The agency can potentially earn points toward their WSRB insurance rating, lowering premiums for residents owning property within the taxing district.

      The final component to be considered here, is that Allie is a certified Law Enforcement Accellerant Detection Canine. She is credentialed and a member of the Brinnon Fire Department and the Fire Investigation Task Force. She is not a pet. Police Canines are also certified by a law enforcement authority, as is Allie. Police Canines are treated as commissioned officers – assault on one would bring charges of assaulting a peace officer.

      I encourage anyone employee is uncomfortable with having Allie in the fire stations to actually meet her, and watch a demonstration. There is a video series by Victoria Stillwell available online, which documents the training program.

      Respectfully,

      Pat

      • Captain o' Captain

        Pat,

        I have no stake in the outcome of this argument and am not personally allergic to dogs. I see some points that you make are valid – specifically regarding the “asset” that your dog Allie is bringing to the table. However, I also see that your argument overall comes across as selfish or self-righteous, and “not germane to the topic”-either. Your position on this matter is full of pro-arson dog stuff, but is negligent of several facts; that bringing your dog to work will present a health hazard to fellow employees, bringing the dog to work conflicts with your daily duties and responsibilities, and bringing your dog to work suffers others to take on dog duties that they did not agree to. Your position on these issues presents insight to your attitude and personality regarding the issue. More disturbing, your own comments suggests that people who have allergies are not fit for duty, which is unbecoming of a civil servant (let alone a chief), and inconsiderate of your coworkers – which is cause for hostility in the workplace. Since you suggest others are “unfit for duty” because of their personal medical issues, possibly you are “unfit for duty” based on your attitude? Your latitude in decision-making as a chief of Brinnon Fire ends once you enter your “day job” so to speak. I might suggest that part of the reasoning behind disallowing your dog to come to work with you is your attitude toward others, and the lack of consideration toward your leader’s decisions. Your supervisor’s and top brass are charged to keep contention within workforce at a minimum. This is risk management 101, something one assumes you have deeper understanding of as the top executive of Brinnon Fire. Bringing your dog to work poses labor risks that your leaders are not willing to take, even when considering the value your dog may bring to the tax-payer. May I suggest trying to look at this issue from other’s perspective before publicly dismissing both the seriousness of allergies and the disruption you may cause in bringing your dog to work? You are not in charge once you leave your jurisdiction, and acting like you are comes across to others as arrogant and unbecoming of a civil servant.

        Sincerely,

        Captain Noel

  • Flora Fauna

    You know what creates a “hostile work environment?” Crybabies and their namby pamby corporate bs rules. This is ridiculous. Since when did people become such pantywaists about dogs? “Oh, their dander, it upsets my delicate sensibilities, wah.” If you can’t handle the world, stay the f–k home! Or take some damn Benadryl. We need to stop letting the squeaky wheels get all the grease. And really, if it’s even a possibility that any of the firefighters are allergic to human’s best friend, can’t someone just go ask at the station?

  • Judy

    I’m allergic to dogs and have three furbabies of my own. I’ve had dogs for several years. I’m sure if I can tolerate it, others can do.