A former Charleston Fire Department captain has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Charleston alleging he was subjected to age discrimination, harassment and slander by his superiors.
William R. Blanton, who was let go by the city in March 2012, filed the suit on Oct. 15. Blanton, who is now 58 years old, alleges his superiors passed him over for promotions due to his age and faulted him for using “old school” techniques during a controversial fire on Daniel Island in 2011, according to the complaint.
Errors made by firefighters in that blaze mirrored many of the tactical and command problems that occurred in the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine firefighters, according to the city’s 2012 report on the blaze.
Blanton’s lawsuit states that he alone was singled out for mistakes made during the Daniel Island blaze, stripped of his rank and subjected to humiliating comments and remedial training. This allegedly created a hostile work environment that resulted in Blanton taking medical leave for stress, anxiety and depression, the suit stated.
The city cut Blanton loose in March 2012 after he was unable to return from medical leave, the suit stated.
Christopher Potts, Blanton’s attorney, declined to comment beyond what is stated in the complaint.
City of Charleston spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn also declined comment, saying city and fire officials don’t discuss pending litigation.
Blanton spent nearly 35 years with the Charleston Fire Department and had been disciplined just once during his career, the lawsuit states. But he was repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of younger, less experienced firefighters for promotions he sought in 2010 and 2011, according to the complaint.
While awaiting word on a battalion chief opening he had applied for, Blanton ended up as the first fire captain to arrive on the scene of a fire at a two-story office building on Daniel Island’s Island Park Drive on March 1, 2011.
Blanton was faulted in a city review of the fire for leading his crew into the burning commercial building without backup, entering the building without his emergency radio and the crew’s thermal imaging camera and failing to hook up to a hydrant before entering the building.
Fire officials acknowledged mistakes in fighting the blaze that were glaringly similar to the Sofa Super Store fire. They also spoke of the difficulty some firefighters had with moving away from the hard-charging tactics and outdated approaches to command that had been ingrained in them in the years before the deadly 2007 blaze.
As a result of the fire, Blanton was forced to go through remedial training, led by his one of his competitors for the battalion chief’s job, Troy Williams, the complaint stated. The suit alleges Williams made more mistakes at the Daniel Island fire than Blanton but Blanton took the brunt of the blame.
Fire officials have credited Williams, then a captain and acting battalion chief, with taking decisive action during the Daniel Island fire to remove a crew that was inside the building just minutes before the roof went down.
But the city’s review report also faulted Williams for waiting longer than 30 minutes to check on the status of firefighters and for going into a potentially dangerous area without wearing protective gear. An earlier draft of that report had alleged Williams “abandoned” his post to find the crew in the building, but the finding was removed from the final document because officials said it was incorrect.
Williams also underwent remedial training as a result of the fire, but he was later promoted to full battalion chief.
Blanton, on the other hand, was demoted on Aug. 29, 2011, from the rank of captain to that of a front-line firefighter. That occurred, the lawsuit states, because fire officials concluded Blanton “did not have sufficient command of policies and procedures to continue in any type of leadership role,” the complaint stated.
Blanton’s lawsuit accuses Williams of “falsely” telling him he wasn’t grasping the training as fast as he should be, according to the complaint.
Williams repeatedly referred to Blanton as “old school,” according to the complaint.
In another instance, a member of the command staff told Blanton “we can’t have people being old school,” the complaint alleged.
Blanton didn’t deny he made missteps at the Daniel Island fire when he spoke to the Post and Courier in December 2011, but said he didn’t understand why he was being demoted while Williams got a pass on what he considered to be more serious violations.
“I am getting hung out to dry over this,” he said at the time. “It’s unfair and unjust.”
Blanton also alleges Williams made false statements about him to The Post and Courier used in a Dec. 11, 2011 article about the mistakes made in the blaze.
“I did everything I could to get him retrained and save his job,” Williams told The Post and Courier in the 2011 article. “But if you don’t have it after 30 years, I can’t save you.”
Blanton is seeking damages for lost back and future wages, expenses associated with finding other work and the costs of the suit including attorney’s fees, among other damages.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.
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