Chief ‘disappointed’ firefighter in brawl was suspended, not fired

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said she was “disappointed” that a firefighter who punched another in a firehouse brawl that was covered up received a 120-day suspension instead of getting fired.

The San Francisco Fire Commission voted Monday to suspend Bela Carreira, a five-year department veteran, for punching Joel Soto, who was in his first, probationary year, in an on-duty brawl. The San Francisco Fire Commission stopped short of accepting Chief Joanne Hayes-White’s recommendation to fire Carreira because it found that Soto had attacked Carreira first.

In June, The Examiner reported that some of the firefighters of Station 32 in Bernal Heights covered up the May 20 fight. Acting Lt. Tom Masterson, who was in charge of the station the night of the fight and allegedly coordinated the cover-up, resigned, as he faced a 90-day suspension.

“It is a stiff penalty,” Hayes-White said of the 120-day suspension. “I don't recall one in recent history being this long, but it wasn’t what I was recommending or seeking.” She said the suspension was “discouraging” because workplace violence should not be tolerated.

Soto, who is on probationary status, will lose his job, sources said. Hayes-White did not confirm or deny that because the disciplinary process is still ongoing.

Three other firefighters and paramedics on duty the night of the fight received suspensions of between eight and nine days for their parts in the cover-up. The chief has the power to suspend department members up to 10 days without bringing the matter before the commission.

Soto, who suffered a cut lip and broken cheek after Carreira hit him, claimed that Carreira had attacked him after an argument that continued throughout the 12-hour shift. The argument started when Carreira told Soto that it was impolite to speak Spanish in the firehouse, Soto’s lawyer, William McDevitt, said.

After two deadlocked votes, the four voting commission members decided to retain Carreira in the department. They suspended him for 90 days for the violent incident and 30 days for the cover-up attempt.

Commissioners Stephen Nakajo, George Lau and President Paul Conroy voted in favor of the suspension. Commissioner Victor Makras voted against it.

“A suspension isn’t enough because violence in the workplace is 100 percent unacceptable,” Makras said Friday. He said Soto and Carreira shared equal responsibility for the fight, regardless of who started it or who was injured.

“What made me believe he [Carreira] should not be terminated is that the evidence showed that he did not initiate the physical aggression,” Conroy said Friday. “I believe it occurred very quickly and I don’t believe you take someone’s job away for that.”

Stephen Nakajo, who changed his vote from termination to the 120-day suspension, could not be reached for comment.

amartin@examiner.com

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