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Two top LV Fire chiefs retired in a week, internal strife investigated

Updated March 7, 2022 - 11:01 am

Las Vegas Fire Department Chief Jeff Buchanan and Deputy Chief Dina Dalessio — the department’s two highest-ranking officials — recently announced their retirements within a week of each other.

The seemingly sudden retirements come on the heels of an investigation into the pair’s leadership, prompted by allegations detailed in a letter sent last year to City Manager Jorge Cervantes by then-Assistant Fire Chief Jon Stevenson.

The letter, obtained by the Review-Journal in a public records request, alleged multiple examples of unprofessional behavior by Dalessio, including disparaging staff and discriminating against an assistant chief candidate in a promotion process because he was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the letter, Stevenson also scrutinized Buchanan’s decision making and claimed that Buchanan and Dalessio undermined COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

“I will tell you right now, it is an absolutely living hell,” one Fire Department employee said in a November interview with the Review-Journal, describing the morale in the department at the time.

Since Buchanan and Dalessio were appointed in 2020, four people have left the nine-member executive team in response to their command, including early retirements, according to Stevenson, a 27-year department veteran who himself retired in December.

Interviews with nearly a dozen current and former employees revealed several sources who agreed with Stevenson’s concerns about the impact that the two officials’ leadership had on the 700-employee department. Others dismissed the allegations as nothing more than long-running internal politics.

In a statement released to the Review-Journal on Feb. 25, Dalessio said she was disappointed by the allegations, which she called “baseless” and “without merit.”

“In my position it is my first and highest goal to ensure the safety of all fire personnel in our service of the community,” she said. “Accountability, consistency and adherence to policy and procedure are my priorities.”

City spokesman David Riggleman confirmed this past week that Dalessio had officially retired the day before she provided the statement.

Neither Dalessio nor Buchanan responded to requests from the Review-Journal to discuss their retirements, and the city declined a request in late January to make either person available for an interview to address reported issues.

Rapid retirements

Dalessio’s departure came just a week after Buchanan informed employees that, in early May, he will also retire.

Deputy City Attorney Jim Lewis confirmed Feb. 24 that the inquiry into Stevenson’s claims had ended. But city spokesman Jace Radke declined to provide any findings, citing the city’s “long-standing practice not to comment on personnel issues.”

Because Buchanan will be leaving after he turns 50, he will qualify for public retirement benefits, according to Riggleman. The same is true for Dalessio, who is 50 and has accrued more than 20 years of service in the department, he said.

Dalessio and Buchanan had been in their roles for roughly two years. In announcing Dalessio’s retirement to employees, Buchanan described it as “effective immediately,” according to two sources.

In an interview this week, Stevenson noted that retirements take weeks or even months to plan, between sorting out severance pay and other matters.

“You don’t get the golden ticket,” Stevenson said, referring to the prominence of leading a high-profile fire department, “and then just decide out of nowhere that you’re leaving.”

Survey hints at no confidence

Sources told the Review-Journal that Dalessio cultivated a clique culture, leaving expertise too often ignored and employees feeling the need to look over their shoulders, and that Buchanan sanctioned her conduct by either disregarding or downplaying it. But others felt compelled to dispel what they considered to be complete falsehoods.

“I don’t see her like that, for sure,” one Fire Department employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as did most sources for this story, either out of fear of retaliation or because they did not want to publicly insert themselves into workplace infighting.

With as many sources lodging criticisms as there were refuting them, the opinion of leadership appeared murky.

A citywide employee survey conducted in September revealed that roughly 70 percent of fire employees who responded did not trust senior management and were unconvinced that top leaders cared about their well-being and morale, according to a copy of the survey obtained by the Review-Journal in a public records request.

The city denied a request to speak with Cervantes about the survey and the reported issues. But in a statement, he said that the city’s organizational health team was working with all city departments to review the survey results.

“The employee survey is an important tool for city management to gauge how the workforce feels on a variety of issues,” Cervantes said. “Department directors review the results with city management and are expected to make improvements and continuously work to create an environment where our employees can live the city values of being kind, committed and smart.”

Some said the results — 40 percent of Fire Department personnel took the survey — reflected a workforce struggling with morale under Buchanan and Dalessio’s command.

Byproduct of the job?

Others cautioned against drawing a correlation between the survey results and attitudes toward any specific executive amid constant changes in administration over the past two decades and a recent handful of union no-confidence votes against previous fire chiefs.

“What is the point of working so hard to change the department when you’re hated constantly?” one former Fire Department employee said. “There is always going to be something to complain about and people are always going to want to place blame, and they place blame on their leaders usually.”

Meanwhile, three current or former officials in neighboring fire departments offered universal praise of Dalessio and Buchanan.

One said Dalessio never showed prejudice against them as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Another, who gave a glowing review of Dalessio from years spent working on FEMA efforts together, said that most executives in the fire service are vulnerable to attacks.

“It’s a tough position to be in, especially when someone can use the media to (air grievances),” they said. “It’s a terrible feeling, and most of the folks who work hard in fire to get to upper-level positions — when you get there it is tough, because you are a target.”

Internal strife

One thing is clear: The city’s largest department has been unable to avoid the internal strife that has dogged it in recent years, such as with the scandal that struck in 2018 when a firefighter learned that a private, sexually explicit video of her had been made public, allegedly by an ex-boyfriend, and was circulating among her co-workers. In 2020, the city agreed to pay $280,000 to settle claims that the department mishandled its investigation into the matter.

Stevenson was actually named as a defendant in the lawsuit, accused of sending the firefighter text messages alleged to have been “bizarre and threatening.” The messages, which were reviewed by the Review-Journal, were intended to be supportive amid the scandal and written informally to be more personable and less managerial, Stevenson said.

The Review-Journal learned of two recent episodes of alleged misconduct in the department while conducting interviews for this story.

Engineer Shane Carney said that he was physically assaulted by a captain during a retirement party last year and alleged that Dalessio tried to cover it up because she and the captain are close friends. Another engineer, Cynthia Reveles, said that after she reported allegations a supervisor wrongfully accused her of sleeping with three of her colleagues, the city and Buchanan’s response was woefully inadequate.

Qualified but facing hurdles

Buchanan served in Clark County and in North Las Vegas before becoming the Las Vegas fire chief in December 2020 after four months serving as the acting chief.

He has been credited by some with bringing professionalism to the job, holding regular town halls and securing new equipment for the department over the next half-decade.

Dalessio, who joined the department in 1999, is viewed also as an educated and experienced official who has provided mentorship and was qualified for her role, multiple sources said. In February 2020, then a battalion chief, she was one of two women promoted to deputy chief, a rank that had until then been exclusively held by men.

Sarah McCrea, the other deputy chief, retired from the department less than a year after her appointment.

Others said Dalessio pushed for accountability in the department and incorporated new programs, which could be seen negatively by those resistant to change. One said they believed she had to work harder than others because she is a woman.

“It’s actually very surprising to the vast majority of us (who) can’t believe she wasn’t a chief earlier in her career,” a current Fire Department employee said.

When Buchanan announced his retirement, Dalessio appeared to have been a logical candidate to replace him.

The pair’s oversight of the department — Buchanan is the more public face, while Dalessio handled operations behind the scenes — occurred exclusively during the pandemic. Several people said that the increased burden on staffing and decisions that preceded their arrival, such as transporting patients to hospitals, potentially resulted in arrows being misdirected their way.

Two notable decisions, however, were called out by Stevenson in his complaint to the city’s top administrator.

No discipline

One was Buchanan’s decision not to discipline a paramedic over how a call was handled involving an elderly woman who had complained of shortness of breath and died two days after the response.

An investigation found that the patient had an oxygen saturation level that would typically raise concern, but she was not taken to a hospital, according to an email by Buchanan to top department officials on Nov. 17.

The email, obtained by the Review-Journal in a public records request, explained why Buchanan decided not to pursue discipline.

The paramedic had determined the patient was not showing any signs of distress, including shortness of breath; the woman reportedly had a doctor’s appointment scheduled the next morning; and neither she nor her family wished for her to go to the hospital.

Buchanan stated the paramedic inadequately checked the patient’s heart condition and disregarded the oxygen reading because the patient did not appear distressed, according to the email.

“It is clear there were steps missed, and protocols broken,” Buchanan wrote.

But he also said that it was difficult to determine how those missteps affected the ultimate outcome, and he concluded that it appeared the paramedic gave “a level of care he felt appropriate based on the presentation and findings of his assessment.”

He added that he believed the situation illustrated that the paramedic needed additional training.

Lost vaccine momentum

Stevenson also claimed that Buchanan and Dalessio impeded efforts last year to distribute vaccines by being reluctant to provide adequate staffing for the initiative and by Dalessio’s misguided opposition to provide shots for the public in fire station rescue bays, which he said delayed that plan by at least a month.

Messages reviewed by the Review-Journal showed that Dalessio had been willing to provide extra support to immunization efforts on no fewer than two occasions when requested by Stevenson.

Dalessio reportedly believed that allowing the public inside the rescue bays would be inconsistent with city rules that barred firefighter family visits during the pandemic, and so she instead sought to utilize churches and parks. A current Fire Department employee involved in the clinics at fire stations said that Dalessio’s concerns were ultimately borne out, as fire crews were frustrated when temporary workers would come into the station to use the restroom and because the rescue engines had to be parked under the hot sun.

But for Stevenson, who was the incident commander for city vaccination efforts, many weeks were wasted first trying to secure alternative sites with businesses and churches.

“We lost a lot of vaccine momentum,” he said. “That was our wave, and we missed our wave.”

‘Mystified’ by accusations

Stevenson’s claims were still being investigated when the city initially declined Feb. 7 to provide the Review-Journal with contents of Stevenson’s email, citing the ongoing probe and anticipation that the concerns contained within the email would lead to legal action.

It is unclear if the scope of the investigation extended beyond the issues raised by Stevenson, although the city conducted interviews last year with at least a handful of fire employees to discuss broad concerns about department leadership, sources said. It is also unclear to what extent the interviews were tied to the survey results, but the inquiry into leadership was said to have hastened in recent weeks with more workers being interviewed.

Some have questioned Stevenson’s credibility, with one believing his complaint may have been inspired by disenchantment over thwarted career aspirations while in the department. Stevenson claimed he never asked for a promotion, however, and denied that his motivations were tied to wanting to be a chief or deputy chief.

Instead, Stevenson said he filed his complaint with the hope that it would lead city management to stamp out poor behaviors in the Fire Department’s administration. In his email to Cervantes, in which he attached his complaint letter, Stevenson said he was also coming forward on behalf of “a lot of concerned people.”

A former high-ranking official in a neighboring fire department, who is close with Dalessio and “mystified” by accusations against her and Buchanan, acknowledged that Dalessio struggled with others on the executive team: “It’s been a tough couple of years.”

The official said Dalessio’s strong work ethic, coupled with her big personality and efforts to implement a vision and better training in the department, could be viewed as marginalizing others not moving at the same speed.

“Their motor does not run at the RPM that yours does,” the person said they told Dalessio. “She doesn’t have a lot of patience for those types of personalities.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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