When Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson introduced a 2004 bill threatening city public-safety employees with retirement, she had a fat, ripe target in mind: hundreds of cops out on long-term sick leave, collecting paychecks and not working. For instance, one collected disability checks from the D.C. police while working full-time as a cop in Pennsylvania.
But that’s not Joe Morgan. For one thing, he’s not a cop; he’s a fireman. And a good one at that—just take it from D.C. fire department spokesperson Alan Etter: “Joe’s one of the greatest firefighters God ever made.”
God’s greatest firefighter hasn’t fought a fire in years, though—not since he responded to a routine town-house fire in Fort Lincoln in May 1999. After he entered the house, Morgan saw flames come through the basement door; then everything got dark and hot. He heard a scream from one of his colleagues, then a thump. Morgan grabbed his hose, rolled onto his back, and sprayed the ceiling to prevent a flashover, which is when everything flammable in the room ignites at once. He then scrambled out of the house with burns over 60 percent of his body. Two fellow firemen died in the blaze.
Doctors at the Washington Hospital Center wrapped Morgan like a mummy and gave him a 5 percent chance of survival. The following October, Morgan returned to work as an instructor at the department’s Blue Plains training academy. For the next four years, Morgan won promotions and raises—and then came Patterson’s bill. He was forced to retire as disabled; he now collects half his active salary.
“It’s not enough,” says Morgan, now 43 and living in Brentwood, Md. “I have four kids. Half of my salary doesn’t allow me to do anything but pay bills.”
Morgan had been training recruits when he was called in to a department clinic for a medical exam in March 2004—a checkup he now refers to as his “retirement physical.” When he appeared before the retirement board the following August, he was told that the examination proved him incapable of performing required tasks. Morgan says the department singled him out for this physical when plenty of others in the department are less capable of fighting a fire than he is. “I was still doing things with the recruits—running, climbing the tower—that I know a lot of people can’t do,” he says.
Patterson’s law states that a member of the D.C. police or fire department must be retired as disabled if that person is unable to perform the “full range of duties” required by his or her job title. Though Morgan says there was nothing he couldn’t do as a training instructor, duties under his title, lieutenant, include actual firefighting—something he can’t do, because it would be too dangerous for him to combat an actual fire without enough nerves left in his skin to feel himself burning again.
“If someone can’t work as a firefighter,” says Patterson, “then they can’t work as a firefighter. That’s not the same thing as saying someone can’t be gainfully employed as a trainer at the department.” But if that trainer’s official duties include firefighting, Patterson says that person needs to be able to fight fires.
Fire administrators could have kept Morgan on the job by giving him full-duty nonfirefighting status, instead of keeping him as limited-duty, says Ray Sneed, president of the local firefighters’ union. It was only a matter of changing his title. But the department didn’t do it.
Sneed sees Morgan’s dismissal as a waste of firefighting expertise. “It’s ludicrous. You pay money to train these guys,” he says. Sneed refers to Joe Morgan as the poster child for the union’s problems with Patterson’s legislation—not just that it can force useful members of the department to retire but that it sends a bad message to current firefighters: You’re risking your career by entering a burning building. “You can’t be hesitant to save lives,” he says. “It’s just that simple—you’ve got to do what you’re trained to do.”
Morgan’s not the only working fireman waylaid by the Patterson bill. Michael Hickmon says he fought fires without incident for four years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but the department jumped at the opportunity to retire him. Two current firefighters on sick leave, Floyd Aldridge and John Windsor, both hurt their knees while running hose at fire scenes and are now facing retirement. Windsor says the department is using the Patterson bill to get out of paying for his surgeries and rehabilitation. “I have trivial problems compared to what happened to Joe Morgan, and they ran him right out the door,” Windsor says.
Morgan doesn’t think he’s been just a victim of bureaucracy—the better explanation for his treatment, he says, is retaliation for a lawsuit he filed with relatives of his dead colleagues against the department, alleging all kinds of administrative incompetence in the 1999 fire. The lawsuit is still pending, and since then, Morgan’s been a gadfly for the department. In 2001, the Washington Post ran a story about how Morgan had been promoted to sergeant but not given the accompanying pay raise, and in March 2005, WUSA-TV filed a similar report about his missing back pay.
Etter denies that Morgan’s forced retirement is payback. “That anything would’ve been done as retaliation is patently unfair and untrue,” he says.
The union, like Morgan, doesn’t entirely blame the author of the bill: “Kathy Patterson did not set out to screw us,” says Kenny Cox, a union vice president. Instead, it blames the situation on D.C. Fire Chief Adrian Thompson, who it says failed to weigh in on behalf of injured firefighters at D.C. Council hearings.
Thompson was not made available for comment; Etter says retirement comes for firefighters after serving the department for 25 years, reaching 55 years of age, or being deemed physically unable to do the job. He says he can’t characterize Morgan’s retirement as “forced” and declined to comment on personnel issues. “Joe’s one of the greatest guys in the world,” he says. “He went through a horrible thing.”
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson is working to give some relief to city employees in Morgan’s situation. He says he’s been trying to get legislation from the mayor’s office that would make an exception for firefighters or police officers injured in the line of duty but still gainfully employed by the department. “We kind of owe it to them,” Mendelson says. But, he says, the mayor’s office still hasn’t come up with the goods: “There’s no question this has been on a slow track, which doesn’t please me.”
Morgan’s on a slow track, as well. Since leaving the department, he says, he’s done some handyman work for his neighbors and had a part-time job at Home Depot. He’s sent out other applications without much luck: “Not a lot of people are looking to hire a 43-year-old retired, burnt-up firefighter.”CP