Terminated Hampton firefighter says city is using him as scapegoat; now he's fighting back

Eric Knick was one of 8 firefighters burned on Oct. 21, 2022
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Terminated Hampton Firefighter says city is using him as scapegoat; now he's fighting back
Terminated Hampton Firefighter says city is using him as a scapegoat and he's fighting back
Posted at 2:13 PM, Sep 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-10 14:14:10-04

HAMPTON, Va. — For the first time, Lt. Eric Knick returns to the Township in Hampton Woods Apartment complex ten months after he got severely burned then fired from his job to share his side of what happened.

He was terminated from the Hampton Fire Department on March 31, 2023 after being with the department for 16 years.

Knick said he has more than 25 years of firefighting experience.

He is one of eight firefighters injured after a flashover, sparked by an electric blanket, was ignited at the Township in Hampton Woods Apartment complex last October.

The News 3 Investigative Team requested citation records from the Department of Labor, which revealed how it fined the city of Hampton almost $20,000 because of problems with how the fire was handled, according to a FOIA request.

Knick said he was wrongly terminated and believes he was targeted by the city for being a whistleblower.

He is now fighting to get his job back.

“It’s been horrible. One of the ways you deal with grief in the fire service is to be around your brothers and sisters in the fire station and they took that from me the very moment I left the scene in the ambulance,” said Knick.

Knick was the officer in charge for the first few minutes on the chaotic scene back on October 21, 2022.

He said he suffered “second-degree burns to my right arm and second degree burns to my entire back.”

A mother and daughter were also burned in the fire.

“This was the first time I had a close call and it really hit home,” Knick said. “It got pretty scary for everybody for a little while that was there.”

Miraculously, no one died in the fire.

There was an outpouring of support by community leaders.

Hours after the fire, the Hampton Fire-Rescue Safety Officer Scott Doggette said, “These fire crews were heroic.”

Knick said the Fire Chief sent him a text message praising his actions.

Five days after the fire - during a council meeting - City Manager Mary Bunting stated, “I really wanted to take a moment tonight to applaud the heroism of our Hampton firefighters.”

But things changed for Knick a few months later.

Knick said he was put on leave in December, restricting his communication with the department, the media and others.

“I couldn’t go to a fire station, I couldn’t see anybody I worked with after one of the most traumatic events of my life,” Knick said. “I couldn’t call some of my best friends that are in the fire department.”

By March 17, 2023, Knick said he got documented information about how he was being terminated from the fire department effective March 31st.

On March 24th, 2023, News 3 sent an email to request information that stated:

“I was reaching out to get information about the status of city employee Eric Knick with the Hampton Fire Department. How long has he been with the city and what was his role? Has he been terminated? If so, why?”

We got the following email response on March 24th:

“This involves a personnel matter, and as such we cannot comment.”

News 3 pressed the issue and asked if we needed to send an official FOIA response and we got the following response on March 24th regarding Eric Knick's employment.

DOH: 10/02/2006

Current Title: Fire Lieutenant

Currently employed.

Knick was officially terminated on March 31st.

Knick and his attorney with the International Association of Firefighters, Arthur Traynor, provided News 3 documentation which outlines why the city said they decided to fire Knick.

One piece of documentation was signed by Fire Chief Jason Monk and has 12 main reasons listed for why they made this decision.

Knick believes his actions the morning of the fire saved lives.

Documentation from the city to Knick states there was no evidence to support eminent rescue in unit 605 - which is the apartment where the fire started.

It also stated that dispatch shared that occupants of the fire apartment had evacuated but evacuation of the adjacent apartment, or others on the first floor, had not been confirmed.

Knick said he searched apartment 605 because he was told by people at the scene immediately upon arrival at the fire that there were potentially victims inside the apartment where the fire started.

The documents from the city state that Knick did not establish a command post, did not establish a water source prior to making entry into the fire apartment where all occupants were reported out and did not perform a proper risk assessment using a 360° walk around.

However, Knick said he did follow the proper protocol by visually seeing all four sides of the building during the 360 degree search when he first arrived and strongly disputes the other claims made by the city.

“If your loved one was trapped on the third floor of this building, and you saw the firefighter get off the rig in the middle of the night and walk completely around this building while they’re upstairs burning, I don’t think you’d be happy as a citizen,” said Knick.

The documentation goes on to find fault with Knick going into the apartment where the fire started without a working hose and said he didn’t pass command to the incoming officer before entering the fire apartment, among other issues.

Knick strongly disputes this and said he did pass command to the incoming officer before entering.

Knick said having only three firefighters on his truck- instead of four - led to major problems at the fire.

He said prior to the fire, he was constantly speaking out about staffing shortages and other safety concerns.

“Every time that happened (staffing shortages), I complained to my Battalion Chief, I complained to city council members. I complained to anyone that would listen,” said Knick.

He said he complained about the dangers and feels those complaints became a reality the morning of the fire.

“That night, against policy we dropped below minimum staffing,” said Knick.

He said staffing changes were made in July of 2022 in an effort to save money in overtime. He said he expressed his deep concerns about under-staffing crews. He said saving the money was not worth putting firefighters in danger.

“They got firefighters hurt, they got civilians hurt because of it, and the music stopped and they’re looking around the room trying to find someone to blame other than themselves,” Knick said.

Soon after the fire, the Department of Labor opened an investigation into the city of Hampton.

They didn’t cite the city for staffing shortages, but they did ultimately fine them almost $20,000 for other problems.

One major problem identified in the citation were issues with getting water to crews on the third floor.

The Department of Labor stated in their citation to the city that the third firefighter back at the truck was "inadequately trained in that he failed to properly charge the water hose line, resulting in no water reaching the entry crew, and he was not on the correct tactical radio channel as the firefighters that were entering the structure.”

Another part of the citation stated in part:

Traynor, Knicks attorney, said, “He and his crew were understaffed with tactical communication channels that were poorly mismanaged and that’s not his fault. It’s the city’s responsibility to make sure there were proper communication channels."

The documentation from the city stated that Knick “entering the structure without a charged hose line and protection was one of the most egregious decisions.”

It states that dispatch said there was no one in the apartment where the fire started, but Knick says when he showed up, people at the complex told him differently and he believed there were possible others left inside the burning apartment.

“I know in the report they said I entered a fire apartment without a hose line, yes but I entered a fire apartment with the report that there were people trapped in that apartment. I was going to try and find them,” said Knick.

The Department of Labor also found fault with Knick in the citation to the city.

Knick believes he followed protocol in the few minutes he was in charge and said he did nothing wrong.

"Decisions had to be made right away,” Knick said. “There was no time to pine over decisions or second guess yourself when you're trying to make these decisions. Again, the decisions I made to get up there were crucial in saving people."

“You think about this every day. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about things that I did and sometimes you try to second guess yourself, but I got to tell you, at the end of the day, at the end of all this, if I had to do this 100 more times, given the information I was given from dispatch, there was nothing I would do different,” he said.

The city issued a 72 page report in April outlining issues like how those on scene failed to control the path of the fire, went in the fire apartment with no working hose, and issues with gear.

Knick’s lawyer alleges that the report only tells a part of what happened.

“That’s what his own fellow firefighters said to me when I came to take some interviews as part of our efforts to try to build a case - that Eric is being retaliated against for being a safety whistle-blower,” said Traynor.

Traynor said he was warned by the city that he was not allowed to be interviewing firefighters about what happened the morning of the fire and said firefighters were told they needed permission from the city to speak to him.

“This is the United States of America and there’s a First Amendment to the Constitution,” Traynor said. “When you take a job as a firefighter or any other kind of public employee, where your boss is the government, that boss, the government, can’t tell you you’re not allowed to speak about matters of public concern. Safety in a fire department and safety practices of a fire department are matters of public concern.”

Below is a copy of the email News 3 sent to the Hampton Fire Department regarding the situation:

Knick disputes the allegations that resulted in his termination:

  • Knick claims he passed command to the incoming Battalion Chief before entering the fire apartment which is different than what was alleged against him. 
  • He said the city’s claims that he did not establish command were unfounded.
  • He said although he did not walk around the circumference of the entire building, he did complete a proper 360-degree inspection based by examining all four sides of the building. 
  • He also claims the fire apartment door was not shut as it states in the city’s report. 
  • Knick said he was told by civilians upon arriving at the scene there were potentially victims on the third floor which is why he went into the building without a charged water hose.

Questions for city officials: 

1.Firefighters at the scene of this fire were described as heroes to the media and the public in the weeks that followed the fire. What changed and led to the termination of Knick?
2.Knick said that no one from the Division of Fire and Rescue interviewed him after the Township Fire. How do you respond to this? 
3.Why was Knick terminated rather than face disciplinary action?  He claims to have never been in trouble or disciplined after 16 years of service.
4.Were any other employees disciplined or terminated after the Township Fire? If so, how many? 
5.What changes were implemented to the department policy after the fire? 
6. Are you required to physically go around the entire building to complete a 360-degree check? What is this current protocol?
7.Do you have any comment regarding his claims of what happened the morning of the fire?
8.Does the city or the Chief have any message to the public regarding this issue?

We would like to request an on-camera interview with Chief Jason Monk to talk about changes that have been implemented since the fire which happened on October 21, 2022. If he is not willing to be interviewed, can you please provide the changes made in the department in a statement. 

Below is the response from the Hampton Fire Department:

It would be inappropriate for the City to comment on any personnel matters, as the bulk of your questions would require.The report that has been previously provided speaks for itself. It was reviewed by a peer review panel, unaffiliated with the City of Hampton, which confirmed the City’s findings. Furthermore, the Virginia Occupational and Safety Health Administration's findings also supported the City’s and the peer review panel’s findings. As part of the fact-finding for the report and peer review, Mr. Knick was interviewed by City staff with a member of Hampton Fire Division leadership present.

In the aftermath of the fire, the City was concerned with supporting its injured and recovering firefighters. At the time, none of the investigations into the fire had been completed, or even initiated, and the City had no reason to think there had been any wrongdoing. The City continues to support the other members of the crew who acted under Mr. Knick’s command.

It is the goal of the Hampton Fire Division to meet or exceed the best practices, standards, and expectations of similar public safety agencies across the country. The Division is internationally accredited by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and also holds the highest rating of “1” by the Insurance Services Organization. The division was recently re-evaluated and subsequently re-accredited, to ensure compliance with industry standards.

The recommendations following the Township fire investigation, including the peer recommendations, did not advise changes to any current policies. The policies in place during the Township fire were deemed adequate if followed and represented current best practices. However, as with any after-action report or investigation the Fire Division conducts or that is conducted, the identification and implementation of ways to improve or strengthen policy and practices are critical. The Fire Division fully accepted this charge by conducting additional training with all firefighters on the current best practice identified in existing policy and are continuously working to improve internal and external factors that have the potential to improve the health, safety, and wellness of our members.

Standards, best practices, and Fire Division policy require a full 360 ̊ walk around whenever physical access to all sides of a structure is accessible. Some scenes or structures may make the ability to perform a physical 360 ̊ walk-around more challenging but almost never impossible. In the case of the Township fire, physical access to all four sides was readily available.

The Fire Division's Tactical Guidelines policy states that crews must, “Perform a 360 ̊ walk-around,” as part of a crew’s initial arrival guidelines. Performing a complete 360 ̊ walk around of the structure allows the completion of several other initial arrival tasks and decisions. Likewise, the Division’s Fire Incident Command System policy mentions the completion of a 360 ̊ walk-around on four more occasions. It is a tactic that is part of the initial report of the first-arriving officer, is a function of command, and is an identified command benchmark. It is the tactic that allows the gathering of information and a complete picture of the scene, which drives decisions. The 360 ̊ walk-around tactic is so important that even rapid intervention teams, or those that are charged with serving as a rescue team for the firefighters inside a structure, must perform their own 360 ̊ walk-around and then every 15 minutes thereafter until the scene is deemed safe.

A 360° size-up, or walk-around, allows the officer to capture and process some very important clues. Not only can the conditions be seen from all angles, but important clues about construction, exit points, floor plan layouts, flow path, smoke and fire indicators, victims, utilities, and more can be observed. It’s not uncommon that strategy and tactics, based on what is initially seen from only the front of the structure, are changed after the 360 ̊ walk-around is completed. Firefighters have been taught this important tactic for decades and failing to perform an adequate 360 ̊ walk around has been cited as a key contributing factor in several line-of-duty-death and near-miss reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

We reached out to the local union president for the fire department. He said one person was held responsible for the issues during the fire. He said no one was held accountable in upper-level management or took any responsibility.

Knick said he was interviewed by a city employee from risk management before being terminated and there was a representative from the fire department there.

“Not one fire chief, not one fire officer, not one administrative leader in the Hampton Fire Department has ever sat down and asked me what happened,” said Knick.

Knick said he has a total of 25 years of experience and said he has never been in trouble in the past.

He feels his termination was retaliation for constantly speaking out about staffing shortages, problems with gear, and other safety issues.

Having three firefighters on the truck the morning of the fire, instead of four firefighters, combined with radio problems, proved to be disastrous, Knick said.

He said he believes he is being used as a scapegoat when he feels the city is to blame for the fire.

Traynor said, “They found a scapegoat, and they picked one firefighter who had been the most outspoken of their persistent under-staffing of the fire crews.”

"We didn't lose any firefighters. We didn't lose any civilians,” Knick said. “If you go back and make any other decisions in any other way, and you lose someone, what's the point of me standing here with my job."

Knick has filed a grievance with the city, along with the Department of Labor, for being a whistle-blower.

He continues to fight for his job back with the help of his attorney.

He said they saved lives that night and stands by the decisions he made.

“Let’s say there would have been somebody in that apartment that was unaccounted for, and I chose to just shut that door and leave and during the overhaul they find a body,” Knick said. “I’m kind of damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

The Hampton Fire Department has declined all on-camera interview requests with us.



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