Gallatin News Examiner editor Deborah Highland and staff writer Jane Stegmeier report:
An investigator from the Tennessee Fire Marshal’s office is conducting polygraph tests on Gallatin’s firefighters to determine who, if anyone, among their ranks is a quarter thief.
“I decided that we would find whether we had somebody that wasn’t telling the truth,” Gallatin Fire Chief Joe Womack said.
On April 28, a firefighter noticed that a roll of the Florida state quarters minted in Denver had been stolen from a firefighter’s bed at the downtown fire hall, Womack said.
The Denver-minted coins had not yet been released in this part of Tennessee, Womack said. The coins were to become part of a coin collection, though they are not yet worth anything other than their face value.
A short time later, a firefighter found a neat stack of $5 to $7 worth of Denver-minted Florida quarters in the “honor box” set up at the fire hall for people to buy snacks, Womack said.
Womack believes that the quarters may have been taken and then placed back into the honor box by someone within the 44-person department who wanted to play a joke, and now that person is afraid to come forward.
“It’s not the $10 value I’m looking at. It’s the principle of it,” Womack said.
Also, Womack wants his personnel to be able to trust one another.
That’s why he decided that a polygraph test of all personnel was warranted. So far about nine or 10 firefighters have been tested, Womack said. The polygraph testing will continue until someone either steps forward or all employees are tested for their truthfulness in the matter. If nothing pans out from the polygraph testing, finger printing of the coins will occur next, he said.
Law enforcement officials were not called in to investigate, Womack said. Instead, he asked for the services of the state fire marshal’s office.
Dana Turner, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office said her office “can’t confirm one way or the other” regarding the state’s firefighting resources being used to investigate a theft.
Bob Pollard, assistant director of the bomb and arson investigation section — the same section that oversees fire marshal’s polygraph examiners, said that their office fields numerous requests daily for a variety of different assistance.
“If we have something in our means to assist the local agencies and we are requested to do that, we evaluate each request individually and provide assistance where we can,” Pollard said.
Womack confirmed that a state investigator based in Cookeville is conducting the tests and was here as recently as Tuesday. The Gallatin Fire Department is not being charged for the fire marshal’s services, Womack said.
However, the starting pay of a special agent criminal investigator at the fire marshal’s office is $2,350 a month. That breaks down to a little more than $14 per hour.
Each polygraph exam for this type of investigation lasts at least 90 minutes, said Dan Sosnowski, spokesman for the American Polygraph Association based in Chattanooga.
That means that if all of the employees at the GFD are tested, the polygraphs will wind up costing state taxpayers at least $940.
B.R. Hall, president of the Local Union 140 of the Nashville Firefighters Association called the investigation “almost completely ridiculous.”
“To me, it’s much ado about nothing,” Hall said.
Mayor Don Wright and Womack disagree and said that even though the investigation involves a roll of quarters, it’s important to know who took the money.
“If someone will steal $10, they will steal $10,000,” Wright said. “My concern about firefighters is if we have one who can do this, I would sure be concerned about sending that person into someone’s home.
“I’m surprised and disappointed that this happened,” he said.
Several firefighters contacted about this story declined to comment.
Chief Womack’s polygraph dragnet is unlikely to reveal the identity of the Gallatin Fire Department’s quarter thief: polygraph “testing” is simply unreliable. If Chief Womack is truly concerned about ethics, then instead of subjecting his firefighters to voodoo science, he should simply proceed with testing the stolen-and-returned coins for fingerprints.