Former Graton firefighter’s bitter legal dispute with district ends in $535,000 settlement

The first time Sapphire Alvarez visited the Graton Fire Protection District station to inquire about fire training, she was drawn like a moth.

“I went, and everyone was super nice, super accepting,” Alvarez recalled recently. “I decided, I can do this. It’s not just a guy thing.”

Alvarez, who was born and raised in Sonoma County, joined the fire district in 2011 and would spend a decade as a nonsalaried firefighter there, balancing that work with her career as an EMT.

Her interactions at the station soured badly during that time. In a civil suit she filed two years ago against Graton Fire Protection District, Alvarez described being passed up for promotion and shunned by her mostly male colleagues, her work belittled and her mistakes blown out of proportion by the fire chief, Bill Bullard.

Alvarez sued the fire district in January 2022 for failing to act on Bullard’s alleged retaliation and discrimination, and in February of this year she settled for $535,000. The fire district paid $285,000 of that, with the rest covered by its insurance. Part of the settlement agreement called for her to resign her volunteer position with the fire district.

It doesn’t feel like a victory to Alvarez, who lives on the outskirts of Sebastopol and turned 45 on Friday.

“There was the hope I was going to get an apology letter from Bullard,” she said. “The letter I received was not even close to what I was expecting. So honestly, I hate it. I feel like I’m the one who’s been punished, and no one else has. I had to step away from the position I loved. Nothing has happened to anyone else.”

Bullard insisted he bore no animosity toward Alvarez.

“Everything that she was subject to, every other member of the department was subject to the same standards,” the chief said in an interview.

The fire protection district, in a memorandum urging Judge Christopher Honigsberg to dismiss the case last July — he denied that request — called Alvarez’s claim “utterly trivial.”

The memorandum notes that she was unable to cite other female firefighters in Graton who reported similar discrimination — there were no women on the force when Alvarez joined; there are currently seven — and that her dismissal wasn’t retaliatory, but in fact appropriate to the circumstances.

“The Graton Fire Protection District firmly believes it complied with all laws and denies the claims that were advanced by Ms. Alvarez,” the district’s counsel, William Ross, wrote in a statement to The Press Democrat. “However, given the practical realities and legal fees associated with litigation in California, the District Board of Directors approved a settlement. … The settlement allows the District to return to focusing on its day-to-day emergency, fire, and medical response operations.”

The protracted battle left a trail of bitter feelings in Graton. And while Alvarez’s claims are disputed, she spotlighted a common experience for female firefighters in a field still overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Employment data indicate less than 5% of career firefighters nationwide are female, compared with about 12% of sworn law enforcement officers and 16% of active military personnel.

In 2017, the City of Petaluma agreed to pay $1.25 million to a former firefighter there, Andrea Waters, who claimed she was routinely harassed and discriminated against because of her gender.

Bullard said he’s happy to have helped grow the numbers in Graton.

“I’m proud that female firefighters are inviting their friends to volunteer here,” he said. “To me, that’s the biggest recruitment tool we have. If we weren’t open to all folks working here, that wouldn’t be happening.”

Alvarez’s civil complaint describes a chilly, occasionally hostile work environment during her 10 years at Graton’s department, a special utility district that provides fire and medical response to residents of the town, unincorporated parts of northern Sebastopol and western Santa Rosa. She had supporters in the ranks, but 8-10 members of the force allegedly resented her presence.

The lawsuit portrays those firefighters as “refusing to ride on an engine if she were onboard, leaving a room when she entered, openly denigrating her skills, spreading malicious rumors to the effect that she could not be trusted on the ground, refusing to work overnight shifts if she was signed up for that shift, and occasionally screaming at her.”

The district’s plea for dismissal states that in March 2017, before an annual awards show, “these firefighters discussed giving Plaintiff an award for being the laziest member.” Bullard, it says, stepped in to stop them.

At one point, Alvarez took a 30-day leave of absence “due to the emotional strain.”

In court, Bullard and other members of the fire district argued Alvarez was unreliable and too often absent from the station during work shifts.

“I would not consider her decision making to be trustworthy to be an engineer or a captain in the department,” the chief said in one court deposition.

The legal battle began to ramp up in 2017, when Alvarez retained an attorney and formally complained to the district’s board of directors. After an independent investigation, that complaint was resolved for “a nominal sum,” according to the more recent civil suit. The amount was not disclosed.

The next few years became a back-and-forth of disciplinary measures by Bullard and appeals by Alvarez, records indicate.

In a written warning in December 2019, the fire chief admonished her for leaving the station while on duty, for failing to ensure the engines’ air tanks were full and for taking too long to respond to a medical call.

Alvarez and her attorneys insist Bullard was singling her out.

For example, the chief suspended Alvarez’s commercial driving privileges for a month after she got a large water tender stuck in the mud while being trained behind the wheel in January 2020. A few months later, firefighter Dustin Blumenthal crashed an engine and caused major damage to the vehicle, according to the suit, yet “Blumenthal received no discipline for the incident.”

Alvarez claims Blumenthal was hired to a full-time position, and she was not, though the male firefighter was less qualified. The district claims Alvarez wasn’t hired because she failed to earn a state-recommended physical fitness certification.

The hostility came to a head in August 2020, when Alvarez was helping staff the station as the Walbridge Fire and other lightning-sparked wildfires scorched the hills of the North Bay. Alvarez had to leave the firehouse to pick up her young son at the hotel to which he’d been evacuated. She wound up being out of pocket for close to two hours, and later marked them as hours worked on her timecard, both parties acknowledge.

Bullard considered those serious violations. Alvarez couldn’t be “fired.” She was a volunteer, paid a stipend for her duties. But on Oct. 5, 2020, the chief stripped her of the position, advising her to turn in her badge, ID card, uniform shirt and other gear in a formal letter.

“We wish you well in your future endeavors,” Bullard wrote to Alvarez in the termination notice.

As it turned out, those future endeavors would include getting her job back.

The week after she was let go, Alvarez complained to the fire district’s board of directors. She maintained the time card error was an honest mistake, one she had readily acknowledged to Bullard. She also argued that leaving the station for a personal errand was allowed, because at the time she was working an “emergency event staffing shift” — subsidized in part by the federal government after a declared national disaster.

That remains a bone of contention with the fire district, which insisted in court that Alvarez was working an “upstaffing shift” that day; those require permission from a superior before leaving the station.

On Nov. 19, 2020, the fire district board voted 4-0 to reinstate Alvarez, overturning her termination. The board also wound up suspending Bullard for 10 days for distributing a text message asking fire district board members to voice their opposition to Alvarez’s claims.

In addition to her verbal complaints, Alvarez filed escalating grievances, two to Bullard and one to the fire district board. She made two formal complaints to the board, alleging retaliation on the part of the chief.

Alvarez also filed a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner in 2022, claiming violations of wage and hour laws. The Labor Commissioner “found no wrongdoing by the District,” Ross wrote. Alvarez appealed in Sonoma County Superior Court, but dropped the case earlier this month.

As Alvarez butted heads with Bullard, she tried to keep her supporters at the Graton firehouse out of the fracas, she said. Sometimes it felt to her like they were doing a pretty good job of that themselves.

“Even those that were like ‘supporting me’ in my opinion didn’t push hard enough,” Alvarez said. “They were too concerned about their own status in the department.”

However, one of those supporters, Robert Sabrowsky, bolstered the contention that many of the station’s firefighters were hostile to her. Sabrowsky, Graton’s volunteer assistant fire chief, noted in depositions that some men would attempt to drive away for calls before Alvarez could board the truck.

“On various occasions I was present when one or more of these firefighters were vocal about their belief that women did not belong in the fire service,” Sabrowsky said in a legal declaration in November.

He and Alvarez have lived together.

Bullard put Alvarez on administrative leave in January 2021. She hasn’t worked a shift at the firehouse since. As part of Alvarez’s legal settlement, she was returned to work and promoted by the fire district — with the understanding that she would immediately resign.

That outcome was unfortunate, Bullard said.

“I absolutely would have liked to see her continue on in the department,” he noted. “I think her expectations of what she was looking for wasn’t something we could meet.”

Despite her negative experiences at the Graton station, Alvarez is looking for another job in fire services.

“It doesn’t mean every department is like that,” she said.

In fact, Alvarez would love for more women to get involved in firefighting. But she wants them to go in with open eyes.

“I’ve seen it a lot lately. It seems they want women to be harder and tougher,” Alvarez said. “I don’t think that’s necessary. I think we can be true to who we are and still be effective at what we do.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On X (Twitter) @Skinny_Post.


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