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A firefighter breaks city rules and loses his job. Should he be able to win it back? 

The Firebrand

Firefighter Edward "Blue" Holm had taken duty in the wrong direction.

Not six months into his first year with the Richmond Department of Fire and Emergency Services, Holm pulled off a stunt with certain consequences.

It was 1994 and a gunshot victim lay limp, bleeding from the stomach and neck in a concrete stairwell. Paramedics had not arrived. Holm and a load of firefighters were there. Holm, already a trained cardiac technician and advanced life-support provider, jumped in. "I started working on him to try to find an airway," Holm recalls.

One thing could save the man, he figured. Against regulations — firefighters aren't supposed to administer advanced lifesaving techniques — Holm performed an emergency tracheotomy.

The man lived. But Holm was disciplined. He was "transferred to the slowest department in the city," he says. A month later, Holm was reassigned again, this time to a station swarming in calls. For seven years he embraced this work.

"I love the job," Holm professes. And that's why he is angry now at not being able to do it. He feels like he's stuck in a ditch.

Some say it is a ditch Holm dug for himself; others claim it's been there all along — Holm is just the first person who happened to trip in.

On Dec. 12, Holm was discharged as a firefighter with the city's Rescue Co. No. 2 on Hermitage Road. He received the official word last week by mail, in a letter signed by Richmond Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Jack K. McElfish.

A year earlier, in December 2000, Holm had been arrested for shoplifting and charged with petty larceny. Holm says he was shopping at a discount store when his young son knocked over a display. Amid the confusion, he says, he wound up with an $8 shirt tucked into his pocket. He was apprehended outside the store.

Months later a ranking fire official informed Holm that he was being charged with moral turpitude — conduct unbecoming a city employee, which includes lying, cheating or stealing. In the end, he was fired.

Holm is the first firefighter in the city to be charged with moral turpitude and dismissed, according to the city and the local firefighters' union. Now Holm wonders why. He, and some others, presume it's because he stirs up trouble.

The rules regarding moral turpitude are spelled out in the City of Richmond Personnel Rules for the Classified Service: "Any employee who violates the City Charter provision on moral turpitude shall automatically forfeit his right of employment. … [T]he employee shall lose all rights of employment and future employment with the City service and the employee shall have no right of appeal."

But Holm's case raises a question. Fire departments are notorious for keeping a lid on internal affairs. In a department that prides itself on loyalty and for handling disciplinary matters inside the department, why was Holm's case treated so differently? Why, of all things, was a city charter code invoked to remove him?

City spokeswoman Michelle Quander-Collins says fire officials — or any other officials — cannot comment on individual personnel matters. Quander-Collins says Holm should hire an attorney and air his complaint through the courts, not the press.

Holm says there's more to his case than courts can address.

He contends his real crime was in bumping heads with a fire administration that is failing its own. "The problem is, I spoke my mind," says Holm. "I called a spade a spade." Holm has criticized the current administration for lax training initiatives, poor management, understaffing and contributing to low morale among firefighters.

People who know Holm describe him as a capable man who won't shy away from a fight. Now Holm is railing against a city provision he claims has not been applied to everyone.

"It's probably a lousy law," concedes Dave Pulliam, a retired lieutenant and president of the Richmond Professional Firefighters Association. But in order for that regulation to change, he points out, the city charter would have to be amended by the General Assembly. Pulliam, who lobbies for firefighters' interests, says that's not likely to happen.

Pulliam knows Holm. Before retiring a year and a half ago, Pulliam had worked with him on a number of rescues. "He can do anything," Pulliam says. "He's an excellent firefighter who fell into a bad situation." But Pulliam doesn't think the department acted unfairly. "It wasn't a vindictive move," he says. Moreover, he questions Holm's desire to tell his story publicly.

While his case was being appealed, Holm had been on administrative leave for six months with pay. "I don't think taxpayers will be happy to hear that," Pulliam says. Pulliam says Holm's troubles could — perhaps should — have been handled differently. Word of Holm's petty larceny charge eventually spread outside the fire department. It reached the city attorney's office. "If some people had kept their mouths shut," Pulliam adds, "nobody would have ever known about the charge."

At first, Holm told no one in the department about his arrest. He didn't think he had to for a minor offense. Holm says he was not aware of the City Charter's moral-turpitude provision — or that a criminal conviction of any kind could cost him his job.

He was convicted of the charge. He appealed that conviction, but lost the appeal in May and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service. Holm says he couldn't afford the legal expenses involved in taking the case to a higher court.

A month later, says Holm, he was told he was being placed on administrative leave with pay. Holm's salary was $32,000. He insists he hasn't been given the opportunity to plead his case, that "no proper procedure for disciplinary action has happened in my case."

City guidelines say he forfeits that right with a moral-turpitude charge. But Holm insists the provision is not applied uniformly, that he isn't the only firefighter who has committed a criminal offense, merely the only one who has lost his job for it.

Still, the rule "blankets all city employees," says Lt. Brian Law, a 16-year veteran who has worked with Holm for years. Law says he is sorry it has come to this. "I can tell you Blue is great firefighter. Everybody was glad to have him," he says. "I even donated to a fund to help with his legal expenses."

Holm has less than 20 days to file a grievance report with the city. He's hired an attorney to help him. Even now, he wants his job back, if possible.

To hear Holm tell it, being a fireman is, in some ways, a lot like working in the circus. He would know: He grew up in the circus, walking the tightrope, blasting from cannonballs, swinging precariously from a trapeze. For more than a decade, he traveled with the Royal Hanneford Circus based in Osprey, Fla. In order to do either job right, he says, you have to take risks. Sometimes you go first. Sometimes you miss the net.

Last Thursday Holm applied for unemployment assistance. He has child support to pay and bills are stacking up. Holm works part time as a paramedic at a hospital and for a tissue-transplant service. He has also applied for a position as a firefighter with Henrico County. Perhaps, he concedes, it's time to aim for another net.

"Even the lady at the unemployment office said she'd never heard of any city employee being fired for moral turpitude," he says. "I've just been cheated. It isn't right."

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