WE COMMEND COLUMBIA Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins for his quick and appropriate response after two firefighters made terrible comments on social media about Sunday night’s Black Lives Matter protest.
Chief Jenkins and his department were open about what had been written, identified the two people involved, and fired them. His response surely defused potential tension between the department and many of the citizens it serves.
His action also reaffirmed that the city’s firefighters must meet professional standards that are designed to ensure all citizens are equally served and protected.
The social media comments were made after protestors marched from the State House to the I-126 bridge, which they blocked. Capt. Jimmy Morris of the city’s Eau Claire station threatened on Facebook to run over the protestors who had blocked the bridge, according to Jenkins.
“Better not be there when I get off work or there is gonna be some run over dumb asses,” Morris wrote.
He later added: “Public Service Announcement: If you attempt to shut down interstate highway, etc. on my way home, you best hope I’m not one of the first vehicles in line because you ass WILL get run over!”
Chief Jenkins said a senior firefighter, Dave W. Proctor, responded to Mr. Morris’ initial Facebook post by writing: “Start running people over.”
A probationary firefighter also was fired for an inappropriate social media post, Chief Jenkins said. That post didn’t threaten injury, but for a probationary firefighter, the only options were firing or nothing; given that choice, the chief made the right call.
It’s unfortunate that the firefighters lost their jobs because of what we hope was a temporary lapse in judgment. But it is never, ever acceptable to threaten to injure or kill someone, even if in jest. That’s reason enough for two of the firings. What’s more, the lapse also threatened to undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the fire department.
All citizens should expect equal treatment from their fire department. If we smell smoke in the kitchen, we expect firefighters to respond with the same urgency and efficiency regardless of whether we live in the city’s biggest houses or smallest apartments.
The two veteran firefighters knew or should have known that the protest involved Black Lives Matter. They should have known their posts would be seen as insensitive. They should have known the consequences of their words would include raising questions about the department’s commitment to serving all citizens equally.
The comments, made as tensions across the country were already high, caused immediate problems. When someone circulated the Eau Claire fire station’s address on social media, the city felt the need to close the station for nearly three days as a precaution. All other stations were placed on lockdown.
Because of their comments, the veteran firefighters created more stress for their former colleagues, whose jobs are already difficult. These are the men and women who routinely risk their lives to protect our homes, our vehicles and our lives.
We know our firefighters will respond quickly when we call 911 to report smoke in the kitchen — or worse. When others run out of burning buildings, firefighters rush in. The vast majority deserves our respect and appreciation.
Nobody should make their jobs more difficult by undermining their safety or raising doubts about the department’s professionalism.
Some have argued that the firings violate the three firefighters’ constitutional rights to free speech. If Sunday night’s protestors were exercising their free-speech rights, some ask, why couldn’t the firefighters?
In fact, the firefighters’ constitutional free-speech rights have been protected. Unlike in some countries — China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia — the firefighters have not been arrested because of what they said or wrote. They have not been executed or exiled to northern Alaska.
But the Constitution doesn’t prevent an employer from enforcing standards for employee conduct. It doesn’t prevent the Columbia Fire Department from taking steps to ensure the integrity and safety of its firefighters.
We would defend the veteran firefighters had they simply said it’s inappropriate for protestors to close a road. We would agree with that. But it’s unacceptable to threaten to seriously injure or kill protestors for closing a road.
Social media platforms have been a blessing and a curse for millions. Those who use them must do so responsibly. That’s especially true for public servants.
When they don’t, the consequences can be severe. This week, three firefighters lost their jobs. But Chief Jenkins’ swift response not only protected his department; it helped keep our city calm.