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Archive for the ‘State Fire Marshal’ Category

The top brass at the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM) are doing what bureaucrats always do when they come under criticism from the media—especially when they think subordinates might be feeding information to reporters:

They initiate a witch hunt to ferret out those who might be leaking information.

But unconfirmed reports filtering out of OSFM headquarters reveal an even stranger tactic undertaken in the office’s investigation of a suspected arson in St. Tammany in which the body of Fire District 12 Chief Stephen Krentel’s wife was found with a gunshot wound to her head.

Sources tell LouisianaVoice that OSFM, with all its available arson investigators at its disposal, hired a psychic to solve the suspected arson case. We have to wonder if the psychic was certified by the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) or if he/she was simply certified by OSFM and then allowed carry a weapon.

And all this time, we have been told by State Fire Marshal Butch Browning and Deputy Fire Marshal, Fire Chief, or whatever his title is, Brant Thompson that OSFM had the best-trained, most efficient investigators in the nation. So, why a psychic then?

But back to our original story.

Word relayed to LouisianaVoice is that a meeting room on the second floor of OSFM has had its windows papered over and a sign taped to the door warning unauthorized personnel to stay out while IT workers comb through employees’ state email accounts and cell phone records in an effort to find the mole.

Well, happy hunting, Thompson and Browning. Yes, you have subordinates talking to LouisianaVoice—and a hint: it’s more than one—but they’re not stupid enough to use their state cell phones or state email accounts.

Perhaps the psychic can tell you who’s talking to LouisianaVoice.

As our late friend C.B. Forgotston would say: you can’t make this stuff up.

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Are State Fire Marshal deputies in violation of the law by wearing firearms while on duty?

That’s a fair question.

Many, if not most deputy fire marshals would prefer not to wear a weapon. Some whom we talked with are downright resentful that they are required to go through Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) certification to be qualified to be armed agents. It’s not the training they object to so much as the requirement that they carry a weapon.

But the fact remains that they are required to do just that.

But there may be legitimate questions as to the actual legality of such a requirement.

In 2009, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning wanted a bill introduced that would redefine and expand the authority of deputy fire marshals, a move opposed by command level brass at Louisiana State Police (LSP) who found the proposal to be inappropriate, based on the mission of the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal (LOSFM).

In a March 16, 2009, email to State Police command and on which LSP’s Office of Legal Affairs was copied, Browning wrote, “I wanted to follow up on the legislation on full police powers for our investigators. Currently, they have powers to carry firearms and (to) make arrests for the arson crimes and I have the authority to commission them. Arson is now, more than ever, a bi-product of so many other crimes and our folks regularly uncover other crimes and times where their ability to charge with other crimes might help the arson investigation.

“Our people need full powers while conducting a (sic) arson investigation. This can be accomplished with adding to the fire marshal’s act or by your commissioning authority,” he wrote. “I have no preference. I just know they need this ability. You (sic) consideration in this matter is appreciated.”

Browning even prevailed upon then-State Rep. Karen St. Germain of Plaquemine (now Commissioner of the Office of Motor Vehicles) to draft a bill to redefine the role of deputy fire marshals. From what we can determine it appears that despite Browning’s pleas to expand the agency’s law enforcement authority the bill received no support from Gov. Bobby Jindal (likely at the urging of then-State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson) and was never filed.

Why would a person who trained to be a boiler inspector be required to pack heat?

The same goes for nursing home, child care facilities, and hospital inspectors.

Ditto those who inspect carnival rides.

Likewise, for jail, public school and other public building inspectors.

The fact is, the only conceivable area in which a deputy fire marshal might need to be armed is in the area of explosives and arson investigations, according to highly-placed LSP officials who insist there is little or no need for the creation of yet another police agency to augment LSP, Department of Public Service (DPS) officers, sheriffs’ departments, campus and local police departments.

Yet, just a couple of years ago, there they were: Armed deputy fire marshals patrolling the New Orleans French Quarter during Mardi Gras.

In order for Browning to get around the objections of LSP, he instituted cross-training whereby all deputy fire marshals, no matter their specialized training, must be qualified to inspect any type building, any carnival ride, any boiler, any jail, or any night club—and to be arson investigators to boot. That proposal, coinciding as it did with Jindal’s obsession with downsizing and consolidation of state government, tempered the governor’s initial reluctance to go along with Browning.

But in reality, the issue was never about improving response or streamlining the agency at all. It was about improving retirement benefits.

By allowing deputies—all deputies (and virtually all employees would ultimately be designated as deputies)—to become POST-certified and to carry weapons, it qualified employees (even clerical, if they wore a gun, as some now do), to have their jobs upgraded to hazardous duty as are state police and DPS police.

What that means is employees can now qualify to retire at 100 percent of their average salary for their top three years more than a decade earlier than State Civil Service employees. Here’s how it works:

State classified employees under Civil Service accrue retirement at 2.5 percent per year at a rate based on the average of their three highest earning years (excluding overtime) multiplied by years of service. So, a classified employee whose highest three-year average earnings are $50,000 must work 40 years to retire at 100 percent of his salary ($50,000 X 2.5 percent = $1,250 X 40 years = $50,000. Based on that same formula, if he worked 30 years, he would retire at $37,500). (This equation, of course, works for any pay level, not just $50,000.)

But hazardous duty employees accrue retirement at 3.5 percent of the average of their three highest years. That means the same three-year average pay of $50,000 would accrue retirement at a rate of 3.5 percent, or $1,750 per year, allowing him to retire at 100 percent of salary in just over 28 years.

Accordingly, Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Brant Thompson surmised that if deputies achieved POST certification, then they were fully imbued with general law enforcement authority and not the limited law enforcement authority laid out in state statutes. “That assumption is absolutely not true,” according to one long time law enforcement official familiar with how officers are commissioned. “Just because an individual has POST certification doesn’t empower that person to enforce all laws. That authority flows from the law or via the person issuing the commission. I’m not sure who commissions deputy marshals; I suspect it is Browning rather than the Superintendent of State Police.

“I know that when the LSP Colonel (Superintendent) issues a commission to campus police, for example, the commission makes it clear that law enforcement authority is limited to crimes occurring on the campus,” the former law enforcement officer said.

Browning is nothing if not determined in his quest to acquire full law enforcement authority for his marshals. The debate that began in 2009 has continued into 2016, at least. Gene Cicardo, who was appointed chief legal counsel for DPS upon the death of Frank Blackburn last September, was drawn into the dispute and wrote a memorandum to Edmonson and Deputy Superintendent Charles Dupuy that left Browning upset and unhappy, according to sources.

The contents of that memorandum are not known, but LouisianaVoice has made a public records request to LSP for that document.

Cicardo has since returned to private practice in Alexandria.

Meanwhile, we have armed boiler inspectors, carnival ride inspectors, nursing home inspectors and, conceivably, even State Fire Marshal Office clerical employees (aka Executive Management Officers) patrolling for criminal elements in the New Orleans French Quarter during Mardi Gras.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

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With the revelation by LouisianaVoice that 10 employees of the State Fire Marshal’s (SFM) office applied for waivers from Police Officers Standards and Training (POST) investigator training, backed up by dubious claims of investigative experience, new and serious questions have arisen into the investigation of a 2012 fire in Crowley that killed a mother and her 11-month-old daughter.

Twenty-two-year-old Marie McDonald and her 11-month-old daughter Bayleigh Holland, died in a fire that swept through their rent house at 2:30 a.m. on June 12, 2012 only four hours after McDonald’s ex-boyfriend had exited the house, according to Theresa Richard, McDonald’s mother, who owned the house.

“The boyfriend had threatened her at her work earlier,” Richard said. “All her co-workers heard him.”

The fire marshal’s investigation was a cruel joke, she said. “The entire investigation lasted about an hour. Keith Reed and Brant Thompson came to the scene and stayed about an hour before coming to our house to tell us the cause of the fire was undetermined.”

She said Reed had an arson-detection dog in his truck but never removed him from his truck. “I told them about the threats and they were just more or less indifferent about it,” Richard said.

Both Thompson and Reed were among 10 fire marshal employees to file for the POST Homicide Investigator Training Waiver last December 13, just two weeks before the January 1, 2017, deadline after which time “only peace officers who successfully complete the homicide investigator training program or receive a waiver of compliance based on prior training or experience as a homicide investigator shall be assigned to lead investigations in homicide cases.”

On his application, Thompson, who had been with the fire SFM for only seven months at the time of the fatal Crowley fire, indicated he had been a lead homicide investigator for 20 years and had investigated more than 100 homicides as either a lead investigator or a supervisor.

His previous experience the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the attorney general’s office before that would seem to cast serious doubts on his investigatory claims.

Reed, on his waiver application, indicated he had served as a lead homicide investigator for eight years and that he had been lead investigator on four homicides. Presumably, the investigation of the Crowley fire, conducted at a time when he had been with SFM for only three years, accounted for two of those investigations.

REED HOMICIDE WAIVER REQUEST

But an audio recording of radio exchanges between the Crowley police dispatcher and Reed would seem to indicate that Reed was reluctant to respond to the fire in the first place, complaining instead that his supervisor would not answer his phone.

“When the fire marshal’s office did respond, I saw only Reed,” Richard said. “I was told that Thompson was there but I never saw him. Reed came and looked around for about an hour. He collected no evidence whatsoever. He never turned over a single board.

The police radio recordings indicate that a vehicle similar to the one driven at the time by the sister of McDonald’s former boyfriend was observed driving back and forth in the area of 1008 East 8th street, McDonald’s address. The actual report of the fire begins at the 6:20 point of the police recording.

You can listen to the police radio conversation HERE.

So, what it appears here is that two employees of the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal who had only four years’ experience between them and one of whom was never actually seen, conducted a one-hour investigation of a double-fatality fire following a reported threat to one of the victims.

And given the request for a waiver of investigator training by both employees who, judging from the apparent urgency in obtaining the waivers, were lacking in both experience and training to conduct homicide investigations, their “investigation” is of dubious merit at best.

Yet, there they were.

One of them, at least.

For an hour, anyway.

As the arson-detection dog remained in the truck, never setting foot on the ground.

Making a determination that the fire was of an undetermined origin.

 

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More information on Brant Thompson’s back-door waiver application for homicide investigator reveals that because he had no homicide investigator training, he was up against a deadline for the granting of the waiver that would allow him status as a lead homicide investigator.

The application he submitted, signed by his boss, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning, claimed Thompson had worked as a homicide lead investigator for more than 20 years and that he had worked more than 100 homicide investigations as either the lead investigator or as supervisor.

Both numbers are suspect in light of Thompson’s apparent lack of both training and certification in his past work experience with the attorney general’s office, six years at the Department of Revenue and his five years at the State Fire Marshal’s office—none of which involved his participation in any active homicide investigations.

The application instructed that applicants “attach a list of ALL training, dates, and locations relevant to homicide investigation training” and to “attach copies of the training certificates or documentation of attendance at these courses.”

LouisianaVoice then made a public records request to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement for copies of those certificates.

Bob Wertz, Law Enforcement Training Manager, replied by email, “There were no documents responsive to your second request. No training dates and/or locations were attached to the original waiver request for Mr. Thompson.

Wertz then referred LouisianaVoice to Act 152 of the 2015 legislative session which says, in part:

“…On and after January 1, 2017, only peace officers who successfully complete the homicide investigator training program or receive a waiver of compliance based on prior training or experience as a homicide investigator shall be assigned to lead investigations in homicide cases…” (Emphasis Wertz’s).

Wertz said all waivers are reviewed by the Homicide Curriculum Committee and that recommendations are made to the POST (Peace Officers Standards and Training) Council. The curriculum committee, comprised of board members of the Louisiana Homicide Investigations Association, advise the council and make recommendations regarding any waivers.

“While the POST Council issues a certificate for completion of the lead Homicide Investigator training course, no investigators are deemed ‘certified’ by the council,” he added.

Browning signed off on Thompson’s application on December 13, 2016, or just 18 days before the January 1 deadline, thereby conveying upon Thompson the status of lead homicide investigator even though he is apparently lacking in experience and training for the position.

In addition to Thompson, nine other State Fire Marshal employees received homicide waivers. They were:

Captains Chris Anderson, Keith Reed, Nicholas Heinen, Chad Robichaux and Brian Mashon and Senior Deputies Jason Johnston, Kristen de la Bretonne, Ronnie Sellers and Travis Goudeau.

In all but Anderson’s case, Browning, just as he had done for Thompson, signed the waiver request forms on December 13, 2016. He signed Anderson’s request form three weeks earlier, on November 23, 2017.

At least most of the nine were sufficiently creative as to not all claim 100 homicide investigations–except for de la Bretonne; she did claim 100 investigations, 35 of which she claims to have been the lead investigator. But she had worked Hurricane Katrina, including Lafon Nursing Facility of the Holy Family where there were 36 deaths and the St. Rita’s Nursing Home where 32 perished, according to one of her former co-workers. As for Goudeau, he apparently encountered a mini-crime wave in Bunkie where he previously worked as a patrolman for the city police department. He claimed four homicide investigations, serving as lead investigator on three.

Click here for HOMICIDE WAIVER REQUEST FORMS

The designations are apparently part of Browning’s grand scheme of cross-training whereby all employees are classified in all facets of the fire marshal’s office that in other states are separated as specific areas of expertise such as boiler inspections, amusement ride inspections, arson investigators, nursing home and hospital inspections, etc.

Browning was forced to rush the waiver requests through before the impending January 1, 2017, deadline because, apparently, none of the ten met the criteria that went into effect on that date.

The cross-training program has come under harsh criticism by those familiar with inspections and investigations who are either still active in or retired from the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Their primary concern that cross-training in each area of fire marshal operations weakens all disciplines and leaves the Fire Marshal’s Office prone to key mistakes that in turn leaves the office and the individual employees vulnerable to civil and criminal liability.

And while the example is extreme, the diffusion of responsibilities among all employees could conceivably create a repeat of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City in which 146 workers, mostly teenage women, either burned to death or plunged 80 feet to their deaths to escape the flames that engulfed the building.

News reporter William Shepherd, who just happened to be walking past the building when he noticed smoke, described a “more horrible sound than description can picture,” the impact of 62 speeding human bodies smacking into the sidewalk. “Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead…” he would write for United Press as the only way he could describe the scene of broken, twisted bodies.

Investigators found that even though the Triangle building had passed fire codes prior to the fire, several doors in the building were either jammed shut or locked in order to ensure that the girls stayed at their jobs. Trapped in a building that had passed inspections, they were forced to choose death from the flames or by jumping.

Again, an extreme case but yet an example of what can happen when an amusement ride, a boiler or hot water heater, or a nursing home or hospital is given a once-over inspection by someone not properly trained as an amusement ride inspector, a boiler inspector, or a hospital/nursing home inspector.

And on top of all that, Browning wants those trained as fire code inspectors, ride inspectors and boiler inspectors to double as cops investigating homicides.

This is a situation that begs for the immediate attention of the governor’s office.

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How well did the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement vet the application of Louisiana Fire Marshal Fire Chief Brant Lamar Thompson’s application for a training waiver that qualifies him as a certified homicide investigator for the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal (SFM)?

The answer, according to the commission’s Law Enforcement Training Manager Bob Wertz, is it didn’t.

That’s because the only thing the commission goes by is the application submitted by Thompson and signed off on by his supervisor, in this case State Fire Marshal Butch Browning.

While Thompson’s qualifications for certification as a homicide investigator are iffy at best, a little trickeration and massaging of the rules may have slipped him past requirements put in place to ensure qualified personnel occupied top administrative posts at the Office of SFM.

Thompson has worked for the fire marshal’s Office since June 20, 2011, first as Deputy Chief of Investigations until his promotion to Fire Chief on June 16 of last year. Along with his promotion went a 31 percent pay increase, from $95,500 to his current salary of $125,000 (Browning, at the same time, received a 32 percent pay bump, from $104,000 to his current salary of $137,500, without benefit of a promotion.)

Around that same time (June 27), former State Rep. Bryan Adams, a former Terrytown fire chief, left the legislature and began work at the fire marshal’s office for $120,000 per year, an indication of how SFM administrators received pay increases and high salaries while rank and file employees have gone for years without raises. Adams later resigned.

He worked for the Louisiana Department of Revenue (DOR) from February 7, 2005, until June 3, 2011. From January 30, 2006, until August 15, 2010, and from November 23, 2010 until June 3, 2011, as Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC). For the three months between stints at that position, he worked as Assistant Secretary of DOR.

Brant Thompson:

Begin Date End Date Agency Job Title Biweekly Pay Rate
06/16/16 Present DPS-Office of State Fire Marshal Fire Chief $4807.70 (6/16/16 to present)
6/20/11 6/15/16 DPS-Office of State Fire Marshal Deputy Chief-Investigations $3672.00 (7/1/15 to 6/15/16)

$3530.40 (10/1/13 to 6/30/15)

$3394.40 (6/20/11 to 9/30/13)

6/4/11 6/19/11 RESIGNATION
11/23/10 6/3/11  

DOR-Office of Revenue

ATC Deputy Commissioner $3394.40 (11/23/10 to 6/3/11)
8/16/10 11/22/10  

DOR-Office of Revenue

Assistant Secretary $4148.00 (8/16/10 to 11/22/10)
1/30/06 8/15/10  

DOR-Office of Revenue

ATC Deputy Commissioner $3394.40 (8/7/09 to 8/15/10)

$3264.00 (8/7/08 to 8/6/09)

$3138.40 (8/7/07 to 8/6/08)

$3017.60 (7/1/07 to 8/6/07)

$2960.00 (8/7/06 to 6/30/07)

$2846.40 (1/30/06 to 8/6/06)

2/7/05 1/29/06  

DOR-Office of Revenue

Executive Management Officer 2 $2640.80 (8/7/05 to 1/29/06)

$2538.80 (2/7/05 to 8/6/05)

In none of those positions did he ever conduct a homicide investigation.

Prior to going to work for DOR, he did work for the Attorney General’s office during the investigation of the Baton Rouge serial killings, an investigation that led to the arrest of Derrick Todd Lee.

Thompson, however, was not the lead investigator for that case. That distinction was held by the late Danny Nixon.

Yet, on his waiver application, he answered “Yes” when asked if he’d worked on a homicide investigation and he entered “20 years” when asked how long he had worked as a homicide investigator.

And while the accuracy of those answers is something of a stretch, the answer to the next question is dubious at best. To the question, “…approximately how many homicide investigations has the officer worked as an investigator,” he indicated more than 100.

On question 4, “Has the above officer worked as the LEAD investigator in a homicide case?” Thompson answered “Yes.”

On the next question, “…how long has the officer worked as a LEAD homicide investigator?” Thompson indicated more than 20 years.

Finally, in pushing the envelope, he again indicated more than 100 as “Lead and/or Supv.” to the question, “…approximately how many homicide investigations has the officer been assign as LEAD investigator?”

He’s has conducted more homicide investigations than Columbo and Kojak combined.

The application was initialed by Butch Browning on December 13, 2016.

BRANT THOMPSON WAIVER REQUEST

Besides the veracity of his answers on the waiver request, Thompson barely qualifies for his position as Browning’s second in command and then only by the process of selective appointment and promotion.

R.S. 40:1561 lists the requirements to hold the position of Fire Marshal, among which are:

A college degree or a minimum of 10 years’ experience in the fire service with five of those years as a district chief or higher position or chief of a fire prevention bureau or equivalent experience;

At least two years’ experience in management and personnel supervision;

Have been continuously engaged in the fire protection field for at least five years.

R.S. 1562 says the fire marshal may appoint a first assistant who “shall have the same qualifications as are required of the state fire marshal.” (Emphasis added.)

While Thompson does not have 10 years in the fire service, he does have a college degree and Browning may have gotten around the requirement of being engaged “in the fire protection field for at least five years” by first appointing Thompson as Deputy Chief-Investigations for (ahem) five years before elevating him to the second highest position at SFM.

But the cold hard facts are he has never worked a homicide. A source at the attorney general’s office said he was assigned only to review cold cases, which is a far cry from investigating a homicide. Nor has he ever even been the lead investigator of a fire, much less a homicide. In fact, he has never worked a fire or testified in court about a fire.

While he may be certified as a fire “investigator,” all that is required for that designation is to sit through a short class presented by the National Association of Fire Investigators and to pass a Certified Fire Investigator exam.

And, of course, there remains that application for the homicide waiver signed by Browning, who by signing, was attesting to the truthfulness of Thompson’s answers…

Governor, are you paying attention? Do you really desire a repeat of the Edmonson debacle? Better yet, can you afford that?

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