The San Francisco Fire Department’s Training Academy is under fire from ex-recruits who say they were subjected to everything from hazing to outright racist abuse at the hands of instructors there, NBC Bay Area has learned.
Last month, 48 recruits managed to complete a 20-week course at the fire department’s training division, realizing their dream to join the ranks of the fire department.
But for others, the training experience was a nightmare.
Aziz Aineb of San Francisco became emotional as he recounted his experience there in 2014.
"It makes me feel awful," he told NBC Bay Area. "It’s like they label you with one brush."
The Moroccan immigrant wanted to follow his brother’s footsteps into the department. Two years ago, he was doing well, until he had trouble with a ladder – that’s when an instructor blurted out something that left Aineb stunned.
"It slipped a little bit it and it made a thump,’’ Aineb said of the ladder. "He looked at me and said: Don’t treat my ladder like you treat your wife."
Days later, the same instructor, Aineb says, ridiculed his Muslim faith during a routine drill.
"When I started going I was facing the wrong direction and he yelled at me and said, 'What the f---? Are you facing Mecca?'"
Assistant Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Columbini, who took over as chief of the department’s Division of Training earlier this year, said he had not heard of Aineb’s allegations.
"Would I allow that type of comment?" Columbini said. "Absolutely not."
Columbini says he had some concerns about the program when he took over. He said he and Chief Joanne Hayes-White agreed that the best way to deal with them was to bring in the state Fire Marshal to certify the department’s training effort. In May, the department won that certification.
Instructors now must sign a code of ethics that requires them to "support diversity" and bars them from hazing recruits.
Columbini said the goal is to "be professional, treat people fairly. Treat everybody the same, like they would want to be treated."
But another firefighter says he has the scars to show the abuse he suffered. Brian Sullivan says he was forced to drop out of the program in 2015 when he developed a severe heat rash and an abscess on his leg. He said he began to suffer after being forced to drill for hours in heavy canvas "turnouts."
"It was like a really bad movie. it's like being in a prison camp," Sullivan said.
The head of the city’s Black Firefighters Union, Kevin Smith, says three dozen current and former recruits have come to him with their complaints over the last decade.
It is because of "harassment-type behavior," he said, that has earned the academy program as the "division of terror instead of division of training."
The abuse going on at The Tower, as it is called, is unacceptable, Smith says.
"People have been yelled at, called names, they've been called words I would take offense to If I were called them,’’ he said. "There's a level of abuse that’s out of character with how we respond to people, especially adults that come into the fire department."
Since NBC Bay Area began investigating the allegations, at least one instructor has been removed from the academy. Meanwhile, Aineb and four other former recruits are fighting back in court.
One ex-recruit says, in a 2014 lawsuit claiming discrimination, that he was forced to go through drills even after he got doctor notes saying he should be put on light duty after throat surgery.
Another said he was docked for having poor grooming despite having told the department of his painful skin condition triggered by close shaving.
But that lawsuit is not the first time the academy has been taken to court. Firefighter Larry Jacobs managed to finish the program after getting injured during training. While he was injured, he alleged in his lawsuit, his instructors called him a "house boy" and made him scrub toilets and kitchen floors with a toothbrush. He says the academy also ordered him to eat apart from other recruits.
The city agreed to pay Jacobs $175,000 to settle his suit in 2014.
Jacobs’ lawyer, Murlene Randle, has also taken up the cause of the five ex-recruits who are now suing the department. She says the only way to stop such hazing and abuse is for insiders to stand up.
"If not for those brave souls -- some were white some were not -- who came forward and said this happened, nobody would have believed it," she said of those who backed up Jacobs’ lawsuit. "They
would have thought he was insane."
For his part, Aineb says he believes he was targeted for abuse because his brother spoke up for Jacobs in his lawsuit.
"The people at the department of training they can pick who they want to be working or not," he says. "You go through so much test and it comes to them and they decided your career basically."
Chief Joanne Hayes-White referred questions about the program to Columbini.
He said he could not discuss what may or may not have occurred before he took charge. But, he says, the rigorous program is designed to ensure the most capable firefighters make it through.
"Being a firefighter isn’t for everybody," he said. "The Academy can show that at times. I think as a division of training we do an excellent job.’’
Randle says that such abuse, in a city like San Francisco, is inexplicable.
"These are the kind of things that are coming out of the San Francisco academy. San Francisco! The home of the free. The diverse city," she said.
"The ones who embrace all. The ones who say they don't care who you are. But it seems they do care who you are.
"Don’t we want a fire department that's represents all of the city? Don't we want a fire department that's sensitive to all the neighborhoods? Why not?"