You Paid For It: Anti-sex cams for Clearwater fire stations

Deputy Fire Chief Marvin Pettengill points out new surveillance cameras in Clearwater fire houses. And his monitoring station back at headquarters. Can you see the cameras? They see you.

CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – After several steamy scandals over the past few years, the City of Clearwater is finally putting its government foot down when it comes to hanky-panky in the firehouse.

The city is now installing surveillance and security cameras in and around eight fire stations at a cost to taxpayers of $267,000.

“These cameras are  just one of of the tools like I said to keep our employee safe,” said Clearwater Deputy Chief of Operations Marvin Pettingill. “We have hired an organizational psychologist, we’re doing all these things to stop those kinds of things from happening.”

It’s all happening because a few members of the fire department couldn’t keep their bunker gear on and ended up in the middle of department sex scandals. After three such incidents, investigators recommended cameras as a deterrent. That’s why you’re getting hit with a quarter million dollar bill to install a network of cameras that record activity in “common” areas such as the truck bays and hallways. Those new cameras also record activity in parking lots and exterior areas surrounding the fire houses.

The trouble is that bathrooms, dorms, kitchens, recreation, and workout areas where sexual activity reported occurred in the past remain off-limits to the anti-sex cams.

“There was always concerns raised by our firefighters that we may be invading their privacy so we kept them in our common areas and just made sure they followed the law where they’re allowed to be placed,” Pettingill said.

Firefighter Union President Sean Becker said the union opposes the cameras, but didn’t have a legal leg to stand on when it came to banning them from the “common areas” of fire stations where privacy concerns are at a minimum.

So far, the cameras are up and running in six stations and installation is underway in the final two. No one actually monitors the video, but it will be on a 30-day recording loop in case any reports of funny business arise, according to Clearwater Deputy Chief of Operations Marvin Pettingill.

“If we have a request for investigation we’ll go back and look at those videos,” Pettingill said.

Cell phone video depicting Former Clearwater Firefighter Lt. Stephen Coward
Cell phone video depicting Former Clearwater Firefighter Lt. Stephen Coward

Pettingill can access live video feeds from a computer in his Fire Administration office, but doesn’t plan to do that in the normal course of business.

The roots of the firehouse sex cameras began three years ago when former firefighter Steve Coward recorded himself in a 20-second cell phone video having sexual relations with a woman inside the bathroom of Station 51. Before it was over, other evidence surfaced indicating Coward was also sexually active with female guests in the fire house dorm, a fire department dive truck and even the workout room.

Another scandal came up last year when allegations surfaced of on-duty romantic encounters in a fire station between Fire Lt. William Fry and medic Tiffany Seabolt. A lengthy investigation resulted in the suspension of Fry and Seabolt, and their assignment to different fire stations. No one ever proved they had engaged in sexual activity in a firehouse, and they denied that any illicit liaisons ever happened.

In a scathing report filed last year in connection with the the Fry-Seabolt case, city investigators essentially said, enough is enough.

“This is the 3rd investigation since 2012 involving the allegation of a Clearwater Fire and Rescue Lieutenant having inappropriate relations in the fire station,” they wrote in February of last year. “Not only do these situations put the City in position of potential serious liability, but it overshadows the prestige of the City of Clearwater Fire and Rescue.  The attempts that were put in place after the prior investigations have not yielded the behavior from reoccurring as this investigation has brought forth yet another allegation to be investigated.”

The investigators went on to recommend cameras in fire stations – which had already been recommended in a prior investigation “to remedy this issue.”

Pettingill insists a change in fire department leadership, a rewrite of the policy and consultations with an organizational psychologist are all part of a multi-faceted strategy to discourage improper fraternization among the department’s 180 or so firefighters who work, eat and sleep together by design.

“Human nature is what it is,” Pettingill said. “But again, we’re putting a lot of things into place.”

Along with surveillance cameras in the fire stations, increased supervision from Clearwater fire chiefs and hiring an organizational psychologist, the City of Clearwater has also drafted a new policy that specifically bans on-duty sexual relations.

The policy even goes so far as to ban off-duty sexual activity when firefighters are wearing department-issued uniforms or protective gear of any sort. “This specifically includes a helmet, bunker pants, bunker coat, hood, or boots,” according to the new policy.

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