JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax Investigates whether a Jacksonville firefighter received special treatment during a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office investigation involving the report of a stolen ambulance.
According to body cam footage, the ambulance was taken by a firefighter who escaped from a hospital where she was being held under the Baker Act. It is primarily a three-day involuntary hold for people undergoing a mental health crisis. Action News Jax isn’t naming the firefighter to protect privacy due to their mental health condition.
Eventually, the firefighter drove to a co-worker’s home looking for help. Jacksonville Sheriff’s officers came out in force. It’s what happened next that is raising questions over whether the firefighter received special treatment.
“She stowed away in back of rescue unit and then Signal 10′d it,” a JSO officer said in body camera video.
“She stowed away? Lord have mercy,” another officer responded.
Signal 10 means stolen. According to the police report, once the ambulance got to Station 36, a JFRD employee saw someone jump in the front and “drive off with it.”
An internal JFRD communication obtained by Action News Jax read “rescue 36 has been stolen from station 36″ adding “JSO has also been aware of situation and also sending out a bolo.”
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The firefighter drove it to the home of the Popes, who are family friends. Rickey Pope has been a fire fighter for 25 years.
“I was actually stunned when she opened the door like, wow!” Rickey Pope said.
“Her anxiety level was so high, I had to calm her down. She knew us. She thought she could come to our house because she felt safe here and we could help her,” Linda Pope said.
BODY CAM RECORDINGS
Officer: “Where’s the female at?”
Rickey Pope: “We got her inside.”
Officer: “Who is she? You know her?”
Rickey Pope: “Yeah.”
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Officer: “Who is she to you?”
Rickey Pope: “She’s a fireman.”
Officer: “Did she have the right to take it?”
Another officer: “I told them to let us know what’s going on or she will get pulled out at gunpoint and get dog bit.”
One officer expressed concern JFRD might be hiding some of the facts. “He [JFRD employee] doesn’t want to be forthright with us. I think he trying to circumvent the 10-15 thing.” A 10-15 is an arrest.
An officer reading the firefighter’s Baker Act paperwork said, “It looks like she threatened somebody with a gun so she may have access to a firearm.”
Based on the body camera video, it appears a JFRD Battalion Chief convinced JSO officers not to make an arrest.
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“I don’t think it needs to go any further than here. It’s an isolated incident within our department. I don’t want anything to happen to her,” said the woman.
JSO told Action News Jax the firefighter went back to the hospital under the same Baker Act hold.
JSO did not respond to our questions about its decision not to make an arrest in this situation or whether JFRD was “forthright” communicating with their investigation.
“This is very serious business,” said Action News Jax Law and Safety expert, Dale Carson. He believes the fire fighter who took the ambulance received preferential treatment.
“That individual should be subject to the same law as we are all subject to,” Carson said. “Because if it happened in this instance, what other incidents has it happened in?”
JFRD told Action News Jax the incident wasn’t special treatment and that the department was just trying to get an employee help.
Here is JFRD’s statement:
“Everyday, firefighters face unspeakable danger and are routinely exposed to horrific and traumatic events. That constant exposure can have lasting impacts on firefighters’ mental and physical wellbeing. Left untreated, issues like depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can lead to suicide. As trained medical professionals, JFRD personnel are required to ensure that ANY patient needing medical care receives treatment at the appropriate facility, whether that is a civilian or in this case, an off-duty firefighter. As evidenced by the BWC, the on-scene JFRD Battalion Chief identified signs of an emerging mental health issue in the off-duty firefighter. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the Battalion Chief then intervened, advocating for the off-duty firefighter to be transported to an appropriate mental health facility for treatment.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health, about 30 percent of first responders develop depression, PTSD and other conditions compared with 20 percent of the general population. Jacksonville firefighters have access to a peer support program that 27 members have gone through since it opened in 2017.
“Some people may wonder are they in a good place to do what they are tasked to do,” Action News Jax’s Ben Becker asked Jacksonville Firefighters Union President Randy Wyse.
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“Absolutely,” he said. “If they are not, we’ll pull them off, evaluate them, and get them well and back into the field.”
Linda Pope said she does not think enough is being done to help firefighters.
Rickey Pope added, “Let’s talk [about a] situation of how to prevent that before it has to be a crisis and then we deal with it.”