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Article posted: 10/12/2013 8:00 AM

Carol Stream fire battalion chief: I'm being fired over cover-up

Carol Stream battalion chief claims he’s being fired for resisting; fire chief denies it

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A Carol Stream Fire Protection District battalion chief says his bosses want to fire him because he refused to participate in a cover-up of possible negligence by a paramedic that may have contributed to a choking woman's death -- a claim department officials insist is not true.

Carol Stream Chief Richard Kolomay has charged Battalion Chief Joseph Gilles with disobeying orders, engaging in conduct that could destroy public respect for the department and insubordination.

Gilles has been suspended with pay since May.

The fire district held a termination hearing for Gilles on Wednesday and a second hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Dec. 2, his attorney, John Botti, said Friday.

Botti said his client fell into disfavor when he was asked to investigate reports of negligence by a paramedic stemming from a call on Aug. 25, 2012.

Gilles' investigation supported allegations the paramedic did not follow proper protocols, Botti said, and may have contributed to the woman's death.

Botti said the paramedic was the first to respond to a call from a party where 81-year-old Armida Nonneman of Carol Stream was choking on food.

He said the paramedic apparently "froze" and refused an offer of help from Melrose Park Fire Chief Rick Beltrame, a family member with paramedic training who was attending the party.

A second Carol Stream paramedic unit arrived 10 to 15 minutes later and the woman was taken to Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, where she died three days later.

"The first responder did not do proper procedures and essentially froze," Botti said.

After investigating the case, Gilles' conclusion "was that the first paramedic didn't do their proper job and that led to the woman's death," Botti said. As a result of those findings, Gilles recommended the paramedic be fired.

But Gilles claims he was told by Chief Kolomay to keep his findings secret. He also alleges he was later asked to give the paramedic a failing grade based on the department's performance improvement plan, or PIP, that would give the district a separate reason to fire the first responder.

The PIP, implemented at the discretion of a supervisor, is designed to clarify areas where an employee's work performance needs improvement.

When Gilles said there was no cause for termination based on the paramedic's performance improvement plan, the review was assigned to a different battalion chief. The paramedic later resigned.

Karl Ottosen, attorney for Chief Kolomay, said there is no validity to allegations of a cover-up.

"It's a false allegation," Ottosen said. "There is nothing to the charges. That will be proven in a hearing."

Gilles, meanwhile, was ordered to participate in his own performance improvement plan after the incident, Botti said. Gilles twice was asked to sign the PIP and refused both times because, Botti said, he "knew that if he signed they'd be looking for any reason to get rid of him."

Botti said Gilles' bosses cited several reasons for ordering him to undertake the improvement program, including concerns he was overweight and found sleeping on duty.

Those concerns "are ludicrous," Botti said, "especially considering he was the same weight on his hire date as the day he was asked to sign the PIP."

According to a three-page misconduct complaint, Gilles was hired Sept. 1, 1995, promoted to lieutenant on March 16, 2005, and promoted again to battalion chief Nov. 1, 2008.

Gilles' attorneys said he received a complaint from the chief Sept. 24 leading to Wednesday's termination hearing.

"Joe Gilles is a well-respected and dedicated 18-year veteran of the Carol Stream Fire Department with an exemplary record of performance," Botti said.

According to his attorneys, Gilles went to the chief with results of his investigation into the 2012 incident with three recommendations: that the first responder be terminated, that the hospital be notified of the negligence and that the dead woman's family be notified. None of those things happened.

James Nonneman, a son of the deceased woman, confirmed Friday he did not learn of an investigation into any negligence involving his mother's death until Thursday. Given the recent discovery, Nonneman said his family will be retaining an attorney.

"I guess what is most disturbing about this is that there appears to be some sort of a cover-up that was going on where the fire chief who was the boss did not want this going public," Nonneman said.

Kolomay's attorney Ottosen declined to go into detail over the investigation into possible negligence, but he commented in general about the nature of firefighters' and paramedics' calls.

"They respond to calls when people are in serious distress. When you're talking about the heart or a choking victim, every second is critical," Ottosen said. "What happened was an unfortunate result."

Gilles is using his accrued vacation time that will run out sometime around Nov. 8. At that point, Ottosen said, his status will be converted to paid administrative leave.

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