City of Fresno Really Stepped in the Poop!
By: Dan Waterhouse
Former Fresno fire recruit Michelle Maher told a rapt audience in a Fresno State classroom packed to beyond capacity that she’s gotten used to hearing she’s responsible for the city’s budget problems and that she slept around with the instructors and other recruits while in the fire department’s drill school in 2005.
The Fresno State alumnus told the crowd she was forced to sue the City of Fresno after the city refused to reinstate her to the recruit drill school. She said that after ending a two-sport (cage fighting and beach volleyball) professional career, she became interested in firefighting. She attended the state-certified fire academy at Fresno City College in 2004, where she was one of the top students in her class. She was chosen by her fellow trainees to speak at graduation.
Maher said while she was at the academy, she was approached by Fresno Fire Chief Randy Bruegman, who asked her to considering hiring on with his department, the Fresno Fire Department.
To improve her chances of being hired as a firefighter, Maher looked into participating in the California Department of Fire and Forestry’s “sleeper” program. In that program, volunteer firefighters work shifts alongside fulltime firefighters. However, because she is a single mother, she discovered the “sleeper” program would not be a good fit. Ultimately, Bruegman allowed her to ride along on city apparatus as much as she wanted.
When she applied to the Fresno Fire Department in 2005, she scored highly on the entrance examination. According to evidence introduced at trial, she scored 31st, with an interview ranking of 100 out of 100. According to Maher, roughly 1,100 people applied, and out of that number, only two women passed the examination. She said the City received $1 million to achieve diversity in the fire department; according to Maher, only one out of 100 hired was female, and that woman did not complete probation because her supervisor got her pregnant (in violation of city policy) and later married her.
The first indication of problems came, according to Maher, when she was invited to play on a team of Fresno firefighters during the 2005 rendition of a charity mud volleyball tournament. Maher said Pedro Flores, a firefighter specialist, took great exception to her wearing a Fresno Fire Department t-shirt while playing in the tournament. She said every player on the team she was on wore the same t-shirt.
When Maher reported to drill school that October, she discovered that Flores was one of the instructors. Another instructor—the lead instructor—was Captain Dan Mendoza. Mendoza’s drill school “curriculum, the preparation, was extremely loose. Captain Mendoza designed the curriculum, decided what would be passing grades, decided who would stay basically and who would go.” And Mendoza, Maher says, did not believe women should be firefighters.
Maher told the audience that recruits were told they had to score at least 80% on each written test and had to maintain a minimum 80% average on their total score. However, Mendoza didn’t hold to that; it was a loose requirement. And, according to Maher’s attorney, Dan Siegel, in court, Mendoza decided “whether you had to have 80% or whether you could get by with less.” Another wrinkle to the written testing was that the scoring could be changed “willy-nilly.” Maher says many of the questions on the written exams had more than one right answer. She added that Mendoza falsified higher grades during the drill school for several male trainees.
She shared with the audience that grade-wise, she was in the middle of the pack during drill school, with scores of 78%–80%. She said there were several male recruits with lower grades than hers who weren’t kicked out. Shortly before the midterm examination, she was told by Deputy Chief Richard Cabral that she had to score 80% or she was out.
After speaking with Cabral, she followed protocol and spoke with one of the instructors, specialist Pedro Flores, asking, “What should I do?” His response: “Give up your children and send them to live with your ex-husband.” She ultimately moved her two children to live with her ex-husband in Los Angeles during the midterm testing. Her giving up the kids was later characterized as “a stunt” by fire department leadership, rather than showing dedication to the job.
When the grades came out, she said hers was 72%, but many of the answers had been scored wrong and by the time the recruits and instructors had stopped going through the test, her score had risen to 78%. She added the instructors refused to go through the rest of the exam to see if more score changes were required.
She was dismissed from drill school, the only one dismissed, two days later. She said she was called into a room and told she couldn’t leave until she signed one of two pieces of paper—agreeing to resign or being fired. She said she was pressured to resign, being told that if she was “fired” no other department would consider hiring her. Between being confined to the small room and the pressure, she signed the resignation; her belongings were searched, and then she had a gate slammed shut behind her as she left, apparently a symbolic “breaking of the sword.”
According to Maher, the climate for women in the fire department is terrible. “Three fire captains who are female say discrimination happens all the time, but they can take it.” She added that several firefighters refused to testify in court because “they have young families and they can’t afford to lose their jobs.”
As for her future career plans, because of the lawsuit she says no fire department will now touch her. She’s currently at Fresno State finishing her masters. After a lengthy custody fight, she got her two kids back. She’s been told she’s to blame for the city’s budget problems and that 100 people will have to be laid off to pay the $2.4 million judgment awarded her by a jury. She said she anticipates attorney fees (which are separate from the jury award) will exceed $1 million.