Gautier Fire Department Fights Suspension Over Volunteer Project

A volunteer project among firemen has landed Gautier's fire chief in hot water with the city. Last week, City Manager Christy Wheeler called for a three day suspension of Chief Mike Grey. During Tuesday night's meeting, the city council voted down a measure to do away with the punishment. And that has some firefighters crying foul.

Building a gazebo at College Park Elementary seemed like a nice way for firefighters to volunteer their time to the community.

"It was at an elementary school that needed our help. They asked for it and we gave it to them," Gautier firefighter Ted Lorenzo says.

However, City Manager Christy Wheeler says doing volunteer work while on duty is against the law. Seven of the firefighters that built this gazebo were on duty at the time. Ten were off, and were purely volunteering.

On duty or off, some say that this project isn't all that different from volunteering that goes on in our communities by public servants on a frequent basis.

"It's not any different from the other fire departments. When the New York City firefighters came down, the surrounding cities helped unload their trucks. We're firemen, we help the community, that's what we do," Gautier firefighter Jason Bardwell says.

Earlier this month,  firefighters from the cities of Moss Point and Pascagoula, and the Fort Bayou Volunteer Fire Department helped unload toys for Jackson County kids, donated by the New York City Fire Department. They were all on duty that day.

During the holiday season, firefighters often appear in Christmas parades in full uniform and on the fire truck. Firemen also go to schools with fire safety trailers to teach kids about the dangers of household fires.

"It's a community service, and I think we are blowing this thing totally out of proportion," councilman Hurley Ray Guillotte said during discussion.

In Tuesday night's city council meeting, Councilman Dick Paul motioned to exonerate the Chief from punishment. The motion was denied in a narrow 4-3 vote leaving some firefighters frustrated.

"What I saw this evening was not putting the community forward, it's continuing to let this issue wallow. It's not really a thing that brings the community together, especially during a time like Christmas," Gautier firefighter Marshall Ramsey said right after the meeting.

Chief Gray has filed an appeal through the civil service commission. By law, he has the right to demand an investigation. He's expecting a hearing in the first or second week of January. Until then, he will not have to take the three day suspension.

City Manager Christy Wheeler says the council's action Tuesday night was appropriate. She says she could not comment further because of the pending hearing.