The heat's on Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard.
Joining a local chorus of angry firefighters, state and county officials Tuesday lashed out against Kennard for having deputy sheriffs impersonate firefighters in a residential drug bust last week.Among them was Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi who said he doesn't want the county to become like Detroit or Watts. He said in those cities drug dealers shoot at firefighters because they might be undercover cops.
Horiuchi, who oversees the county's fire department, said he believes the controversy over the undercover operation stems from a lack of communication.
"We will work with the sheriff to solve this, with the No. 1 goal being that the safety of our firefighters never be questioned," Horiuchi said. "No one wants the type of thing that has happened in other communities where the firefighters have lost the confidence of the public."
Kennard blames the controversy on "lack of communication within the fire department."
"I don't understand why the firemen are mad at me because they agreed with the entire operation before it was implemented," he said. "In fact, they were part of the planning process and even participated to the extent that they drove the vehicles for us."
Kennard said at any time in the operation the firefighters could have refused to participate and the operation would have taken a new direction.
"We didn't hold a gun to anyone's head to force them to do this," he said.
But Murray Fire Chief Wendell Coombs, president of the Utah State Fireman's Association, is still concerned.
"He (Kennard) has jeopardized the lives of the more than 3,000 firefighters in Utah. If he wants to take all the drug money he gets out of the drug busts and buy every firefighter in the state a bullet-proof vest, maybe we would consider using firefighters as decoys."
"But there are too many firefighters killed every year in the line of duty; they don't need to become targets for drug addicts as well," Coombs said.
Kennard came under attack from Salt Lake area fire department officials Saturday after he had undercover narcotic agents pose as firefighters to gain access into a home known for drug trafficking.
"It was the safest, most reasonable way to get in there without a big shootout," Kennard said Saturday. He said the home had been raided twice before. The doors and windows were reinforced with steel bars and the occupants were heavily armed.
"There was no way we could have gotten in there with a battering ram," he said. "We just didn't want to get anyone hurt."
The bust was a success. No one was hurt in Friday's raid of the West Valley home; its occupants were arrested.
Nonetheless, firefighters' emotions smoldered over the weekend and tempers flared again Tuesday, with Coombs demanding that such undercover operations stop.
Coombs says because of Kennard's undercover operation, every firefighter now faces increased danger. People won't know whether firefighters are there to help or hurt them.
"Every time we go into a medical call, we say, `We are here to help you,' " Coombs said. "The minute a police officer walks through the door, people become very combative just because they see that gun. I don't want firefighters to be mistrusted when we are legitimately there. We are there to take care of people - not to arrest them. That's the job of police officers."
Salt Lake County Fire Chief Larry Hinman agrees.
He said he believes the sheriff used more firefighting equipment than what his office gave permission to use in Friday's bust.
Hinman said his administrators agreed to let the sheriff use an old out-of-service ambulance. Instead, sheriff's deputies used that plus another vehicle and some firefighting clothing.
"Our real concern is that a firefighter could be perceived as being something else," Hinman said. "What it boils down to is we don't want to get firefighters shot."
Hinman said he looks forward to meeting with Kennard and drafting policies that would cover future cooperative agreements between the fire department and the sheriff.
"We don't want to give the impression we won't cooperate with the sheriff," Hinman said. "We want to involve the sheriff in this because we need to have a good hand-in-hand relationship."
Horiuchi wants to develop policies and procedures that the sheriff and firefighters can follow.
A firefighter was suspended over the weekend for telling reporters about the sheriff's decision to disguise undercover agents as firemen while making a drug bust.
Salt Lake County Fire Chief Larry Hinman said the firefighter, whom he did not identify, was disciplined for not following the proper chain of command. He was given Saturday and Sunday off but did not lose any pay.
"To be honest, he probably had concerns that this wouldn't reach the press," Hinman said, adding that reporters would have been notified about the incident in any event. "This is something that needed to be aired," he said.