SFFD trial: Drunken party led to tension escalating between Juratovac, dept. higher-ups

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday September 8, 2023
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San Francisco Assistant Fire Chief Nicol Juratovac is suing the city claiming whistleblower retaliation and discrimination. Photo: Courtesy Cannata O'Toole and Olson
San Francisco Assistant Fire Chief Nicol Juratovac is suing the city claiming whistleblower retaliation and discrimination. Photo: Courtesy Cannata O'Toole and Olson

Reporting a drunken on-duty party that had led a paramedic not to respond to a fire call soured relations between a lesbian San Francisco Fire Department assistant chief and her colleagues, she testified on day two of her discrimination and retaliation trial September 8.

The civil jury trial in San Francisco Superior Court is before Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos.

"This is a five-alarm management problem that needs to get investigated," Nicol Juratovac said on the stand. "There was alcohol consumed and a firefighter paramedic, under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, was not getting on the engine — responding to fire calls — because of his state of inebriation."

The party is alleged to have happened at Fire Station No. 11 in Noe Valley in 2017 as part of retirement celebrations for a longtime colleague. Juratovac was not in attendance, but found out about it when a new firefighter alleged to have been sexually harassed there.

"As firefighters, we don't want to be the person who reports things, but I'm an assistant chief at this point," Juratovac explained. "I had been to other retirement parties."

Juratovac said she asked Bill Storti, an assistant chief who was there, to report it, but initially he did not.

"I did [report it] because he wasn't going to report it," Juratovac said. "Then he did, but he himself was assigned as the investigator, and I saw that as a problem."

Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata, of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, asked why it was a problem.

"Because he swung by," she explained. "He was part of the investigation."

Juratovac also raised eyebrows by asking that signs ostensibly posted by firefighters be removed. In one case, she ordered the removal of a "making the Department GREAT AGAIN" sign; in another case, a gender-neutral sign from the entrance to a men's locker room, since the department has only male and female locker rooms, and did not have gender-neutral bathrooms at the time.

Friday's proceedings were a continuation of Juratovac's testimony from September 7. Cannata walked her through the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh investigations into her behavior by the department that the suit alleges was actually retaliation against her.

The plaintiff alleges eight causes of action against the city: unlawful retaliation in violation of the labor code; unlawful retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act; discrimination based on sexual orientation; discrimination based on race; discrimination based on gender; unlawful harassment; failure to investigate and prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation; and violation of the California Public Records Act.

The seven investigations were, in chronological order, 1) about an argument ostensibly about a mask at a 2014 fire; 2) her order that a firefighter who'd been arrested for driving under the influence stop driving on duty in 2015; 3 and 4) two separate incidents at San Francisco International Airport in 2016; 5) a dispute over proper reporting of secondary employment in 2019; 6) a dispute about a ladder drill in 2019; 7) and a dispute over a lost document in 2020. (No. 1 and 2 were covered in the September 7 report.)

The third and fourth investigations were rescinded by then-Fire Chief Joanne M. Hayes-White.

Back in 2016, Juratovac received a FBOR, or Firefighter Bill of Rights, letter informing her that she was being investigated for her "demeanor in the workplace." At the time she was assigned to San Francisco International Airport.

"This was my third in a total of seven FBOR letters," she said. "Prior to the first one [regarding the Joost Street fire, the cause of the first investigation] I had never received one. ... It seemed like these incidents were happening at a time I was up for promotion ... and these investigations were being weaponized against me."

Then she received a fourth letter, also mentioning "demeanor in the workplace."

As it turned out, the letters were about two separate investigations into Juratovac's behavior at the airport. The first letter was sent after a new firefighter felt uncomfortable while their physical fitness was being tested; the second letter was sent after Juratovac and other firefighters responded three times to a sewage leak in the airport reported by a civilian employee.

The firefighters "abated" the sewage issue, Juratovac said.

"I put my hand on him and said 'call us any time,'" she testified. "I learned that's why the investigation was made."

The fifth investigation happened after an employee driver who Juratovac said was friends with Assistant Chief Tom Siragusa complained that Juratovac did personal business while on duty, such as going to Walgreens and buying greeting cards.

(Siragusa and Juratovac hadn't gotten along since Juratovac wrote a declaration in favor of a recruit who made bullying allegations against Siragusa, she testified September 7.)

Juratovac said that due to the heavy demands of the fire service, this is a common occurrence, as long as people don't leave their assigned area of the city. One of the places Juratovac went was City College of San Francisco, where she teaches.

Juratovac said she did not teach any courses while on-duty. Current Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, a lesbian, opted not to punish her specifically, but sent a general letter to SFFD employees about secondary employment.

The sixth investigation happened after a firefighter felt "singled out" during a ladder drill. Juratovac was suspended for 10 days, though this eventually was reduced to four.

The final investigation happened in late 2020 or early 2021 after a performance improvement plan document went missing. However, Juratovac was later exonerated and the paper was found in late 2021.

Juratovac also said she upset people by ordering a picture of a beloved, deceased firefighter displaying the middle finger be removed from the wall, and asking that someone report a co-worker who was astounded that a female firefighter won the year's Super Bowl pool at one of the fire stations.

"I ordered the captain to handle it at the lowest level," Juratovac said. "Maybe it was a misunderstanding."

However, Juratovac reported that the captain did not handle it at all.

"The behavior [of Juratovac's perceived enemies in the department] became more and more unprofessional," she said. "I just wanted it to stop."

The trial continues September 11 in Department 303 of San Francisco County Superior Court, 400 McAllister Street, at 9:30 a.m. It is expected the city's lawyers will cross-examine Juratovac.

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