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Female firefighter alleges captain left her crew in burning building in retaliation for complaints

By Lori Pilger

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    Female firefighter alleges captain left her crew in burning building in retaliation for complaints (Lincoln Journal Star) — A female Lincoln firefighter suing the department over alleged discrimination and retaliation is asking a judge to order an independent investigation after, she says, a captain at the center of the case “abandoned” her team in a burning building.

Amanda Benson’s attorney, Kelly Brandon, says despite multiple complaints from Benson about Capt. Shawn Mahler’s conduct over the past several years, the city and Lincoln Fire & Rescue administration have refused to discipline him.

Now, she is asking Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf to order the city to immediately initiate disciplinary proceedings against Mahler, prohibit him from being sent to fires and appoint an independent, third party to investigate the complaint about his actions at a fire in April.

“Plaintiff is engaged in a dangerous profession where teamwork is absolutely critical,” the Gretna attorney wrote. “Plaintiff, and those who happen to work on her team, face obvious irreparable harm if Mahler is allowed to continue retaliating against her while this litigation proceeds.”

According to court records, Mahler told an administrative officer investigating the complaint that he had been confused about who was assigned to him.

The city hasn’t yet filed a response to the motion.

“Following receipt of the parties’ written materials, the court may or may not hold an evidentiary hearing,” Kopf said in an order this week.

On Friday, City Attorney Yohance Christie said he couldn’t comment on personnel issues but said the fire department always investigates complaints. It’s the department’s responsibility as an employer.

“The Fire Department is going to continue to work to create an environment where all employees, including Ms. Benson and Mr. Mahler, feel safe,” he said.

In 2018, Benson sued, alleging that the city turned a blind eye to complaints about a hostile work environment, exonerated employees who contributed to it and failed to take steps to fix it.

Specifically, she alleged Mahler refused to train her on general station procedures, truck functions, roof venting and rope rigging because she is a woman and repeatedly expressed his resistance to female firefighters.

After an internal investigation in 2016, the city found no reason for disciplinary action and told Benson to return to Station 8 or give up her assignment.

She now works at Station 1. But in an affidavit filed last week, Benson said it’s not uncommon for her and Mahler to be dispatched to the same fire or crash, as they were April 26 when a fire broke out at a cardboard warehouse.

Benson said her crew was assigned to help Mahler’s crew with ventilation, but Mahler ignored her when she repeatedly asked him how they could help.

When her team followed him in the warehouse, she said, Mahler suddenly walked away and left them “without communication, assignment or direction on how or where to proceed.”

Because of heavy smoke and low visibility, she said she had to use a thermal-imaging camera to find the fire and a hose line to find the way out.

Benson thinks it was retaliation for a complaint she’d made four days earlier alleging Mahler disparaged her to another firefighter.

The lawsuit followed two others by then-Capts. Brian Giles and Troy Hurd, alleging they faced retaliation for reporting harassment of female firefighters.

In 2019, a federal jury awarded Hurd $1.1 million. The judgment later was reduced by a judge and the city agreed to pay Hurd $600,000 to avoid a second trial.

Last year, the city agreed to pay Giles $280,000 to settle his lawsuit.

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