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Interim Palm Beach County Fire Rescue chief says policy changes coming to department after scandal

Posted at 8:19 PM, Jan 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-24 22:28:34-05

Contact 5 has learned the search for the next permanent Palm Beach County Fire Rescue chief will be nationwide, but in the meantime, Interim Chief Michael Mackey is telling Contact 5 about his plans for the department right now. 

He may be 14 months away from retirement, but Mackey says, he’ll be effective. 

“It’s a challenge but I’m up to it,” Mackey told Contact 5, after sitting down for an interview about what’s ahead for Fire Rescue. He’s been with the department for 30 years, and has worked his way up the ranks. 

Chief Michael Mackey calls the firefighters of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue “his heroes.”  For his heroes, Chief Mackey says he wants to bring real change to Fire Rescue. 

“I want to have a review of all of our policies and all of our standard operating guidelines. So I’m developing teams,” says Mackey.

Mackey is currently having people look over the department’s current structure. 

“Just how the organizational chart is, and more of the culture and where we’re going with this department,” said Mackey.

Mackey takes over a department, hit by several lawsuits in the last 2 years. Lawsuits that allege harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. Sources tells Contact 5, County Administrator Verdenia Baker was not happy with the way the former Chief, Chief Jeff Collins handled those complaints.Collins resigned, but said it was by force. 

Captain Amanda Vomero, is suing the department, saying Division Chief Chris Hoch spread sexual rumors about her, as well as harassed her in other ways, since 2015. Hoch later admitted to repeating the rumors, during a county investigation. Chief Hoch violated the county's harassment policy, but only received a written reprimand.  

That same county government investigationfound within the department, “sexually oriented rumors are commonplace,” with ranking officers being the ones responsible for circulating the rumors.”

In response to the county also calling Fire Rescue an “offensive work environment,” Mackey says “It breaks my heart. And certain things I’m not at liberty to discuss, you know that, trust me, I’m going to work, these last 14 months, day in and day out to make sure we continue to provide excellent service to our residents, our citizens. Let our troops know, we are the best.”

Contact 5 asked Mackey, if Chief Hoch will stay in his position, since there is a zero tolerance policy.

“Again those are areas that I can’t really discuss right now,” said Mackey. 

Right before that, Contact 5 had asked Mackey if more personnel changes were ahead. He replied, “Sam, there’s some of these things I just can’t address right now, I can’t talk about certain aspects but I will say we are assessing the situation.” 

When the harassment and retaliation claims were first publicly reported, a group of women sent a letter to County Administrator Verdenia Baker, County Commissioners and Contact 5 Investigative Reporter Sam Smink. The letter said in part, that Hoch, and another Chief, needed to be held responsible for their actions.

The letter also asked for Chief Jeff Collins to be fired. The women did not sign their names, calling their group, the “Anonymous Women of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue,” saying they chose not to sign the letter, for fear of retaliation. 

Contact 5 asked Mackey, if he had a message for the women at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. 

“My message to everyone is that I care about them, they are my family. Everything rises and falls under leadership right, and under my leadership there will be a zero tolerance for any kind of harassment, sexual harassment, any kind of discrimination, any kind of hostile work environment, that’s absolutely unacceptable, at any level, for any reason,” said Mackey. When asked if that statement would be backed up by actions, Mackey said “Absolutely. Let me make it clear, under my leadership, there will be zero tolerance for any kind of behavior that does not meet the standard that’s set forth for fire fighters,” said Mackey. 

Chief Mackey says he’s also adding people to a communications team, led by their current Public Information Officer, to get better about keeping everyone in the loop about future changes.  

Mackey tells Contact 5, he will have a direct hand in picking the next Chief, working alongside the county. Mackey says the search for a new chief will be nationwide, but the applying process is not open yet. 

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