Firefighter, 67, battles city for job

Veteran, refuses to take retirement, alleges age bias

November 15, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Andrew P. Shows began fighting fires in Baltimore 44 years ago, and has risen to become the most senior battalion chief in the department. But he has now embarked on a new battle -- this time over his age and whether he is fit for work.

The city says it's time Shows, 67, ended his career and retired. He was diagnosed with congestive heart disease in April 1998 after he woke up at home early one morning struggling to breathe.

For all practical purposes, Shows is on unpaid leave. He spends some mornings at his old station house on Harford Road sipping coffee with his buddies -- though the city stopped paying him in April in hopes of forcing his retirement.

He refuses to sign his retirement papers, preventing him from collecting a $71,000-a-year pension.

"Retirement is a personal decision, and they don't have a right to tell me when I should go," Shows said. "I'll go when I'm ready. I'm in excellent health."

Shows' fight -- his age discrimination claim has been rejected by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- could have a significant impact on the city's 1,700 firefighters.

Fire union officials are worried that a lawsuit by Shows would lead the city to avoid future suits by creating a mandatory retirement age of 55.

In the next few months, the department is planning to order physical exams for every firefighter, required by the federal government, which could force many into early retirement, including a dozen with asthma.

"You wouldn't believe the hue and cry from the membership," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officers union, Local 734. "It's almost like they would rather die on the job than retire and live."

Shows is one of 31 battalion chiefs in the department. Most are on-scene supervisors and are required to direct firefighters in fighting fires, from how they are positioned around a burning building to where they direct water onto flames.

Shows argues that he does not have to assume the demanding duties of a firefighter, such as putting on an oxygen mask or entering a burning structure. "I'm in charge of the fire," he said. "If I go into a building, I'm not doing my job."

`This is a health issue'

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, the Fire Department's chief spokesman, said that smoke can be so bad outside a burning building that oxygen masks need to be worn. "This is not an age issue," he said. "This is a health issue. He has done a lot for this city. Unfortunately, he just does not want to let it go."

Shows' doctor, Howard I. Goldman, wrote in a letter to the city in October last year that Shows "was cleared to return to work without restriction." The doctor said last week that his recommendation is based on Shows' claim that he does not have to "assume the duties of a regular firefighter."

"He's not an in-the-trenches firefighter," Goldman said.

Asked if his patient of 10 years could climb a ladder, Goldman said: "He can't do that."

Dr. James D. Levy, the Fire Department's medical director, declined to comment. But in a written response to Goldman last year, he said Shows "is required to be qualified and able to fully participate in fire suppression activities" that include wearing protective gear and an oxygen tank that weigh 70 pounds, entering buildings where heat exceeds 1,000 degrees and climbing ladders.

First on the scene

Fugate said battalion chiefs often are the first to arrive at a fire and should be able to rescue people. At last year's Charles Center Tower fire, the on-scene command center was on the 15th floor of the burning high-rise, requiring supervisors to climb 15 flights in a narrow, smoky stairwell.

"We can't have people out there doing the job that they aren't physically able to do," Fugate said. "We're not going to be second-guessing doctors."

Fugate said Shows turned down an offer to work a desk job at the fire academy, but has changed his mind. The job is not available anymore.

"If you can't fight fires, you can't work," the union president said.

Shows is not backing down. He recently sent two snapshots of himself to the fire chief and other officials, standing in front of Fire Department headquarters on Calvert Street pointing to a fire-safety sign and wearing a T-shirt saying: "44 honorable and faithful years BCFD. Fired."

Older firefighters

Shows is not the the oldest member of the department. Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., who assumes command of large fires, is 69. Battalion Chief John R. Griffith is 70. And Firefighter Littleton Wyatt Sr., 73, works with Engine Company 29 on Park Heights Avenue.

Francis J. Collins, an attorney who represents the two fire unions, wrote the city in December that he disputes doctors' claims that a fire would put Shows at risk. "He advises me that he has, in fact, never entered a burning building in turnout gear and breathing apparatus during his entire career as a battalion chief," the letter says.

In a private letter to Shows a month later, Collins advised him that he doesn't stand much of a chance. "When human life is concerned, the courts tend to err substantially on the side of safety," the letter says.

`Not going to retire'

Shows refuses to give up. He ignored letters from the city advising him to retire. "Failure to do so will cause a serious interruption to your income," wrote Assistant Fire Chief Michael E. Dalton. The sentence was in bold, in capital letters, and underlined.

"I'm as physically fit as anyone on this Fire Department," Shows responded. "I'm not going to retire."

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