A female former fire chief has filed a federal lawsuit...

A female former fire chief has filed a federal lawsuit against the Hagerman Fire Department and fire district in East Patchogue alleging gender discrimination. Credit: Tom Lambui

A female former fire chief has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Hagerman Fire Department and fire district, alleging gender discrimination by staff within the East Patchogue agency who ignored her orders and “undermined” her authority.

Nicole Pannhurst served as fire chief of the department from January 2021 to January 2022 — overseeing 119 male firefighters in what the lawsuit described as a hostile work environment. She is still a “general member” of the department, according to the suit.

She filed the legal action Jan. 24 in U.S. Eastern District Court of New York. It names the fire department and its district’s board of commissioners as defendants and alleges other assistant fire chiefs and members of the department ignored her orders in acts of insubordination.

“From that point on, Ms. Pannhurst’s authority was intentionally undermined by defendants whether through directly disobeying her rightful issued orders, or failing to report and inform her of salient events and information regarding the fire department and its operations,” according to the lawsuit filed by Pannhurst’s attorneys, Fred Brewington and Cobia Powell.

Officials with the Hagerman Fire Department and fire district could not be reached for comment. An attorney representing the fire department declined to comment Tuesday. 

Pannhurst also declined to comment Tuesday.

The lawsuit alleges that other department members failed to notify her of several incidents, including a fire truck that was totaled and another crash that injured firefighters.

In another example, a firefighter was being investigated for falsifying sign-in sheets for competitive drills, according to the lawsuit. When an alarm went off, firefighters would sign in and receive credit for responding, even if they did not actually go, the lawsuit alleges.

Firefighters would refuse to follow Pannhurst's orders, such as moving fire trucks and equipment to the front of the firehouse to cut down on those falsified responses to calls. When she disciplined firefighters for insubordination, male colleagues would overturn the orders while she was on vacation, according to the lawsuit.

Pannhurst said when she complained to the fire district about gender discrimination and insubordination, her complaints were ignored.

“She was being treated as a female figurehead for the department, not as chief,” the lawsuit states. “Ms. Pannhurst questioned the board about whether her gender was the reason for their obvious actions. The board untruthfully denied. Ms. Pannhurst continued to raise her opposition with Defendant board repeatedly during her one year tenure as chief but it always fell on deaf ears.”

Pannhurst also filed a complaint last year with the New York Division of Human Rights, which opened an investigation and found “probable cause” to support the allegations.

In response to the investigation, the Hagerman Fire Department denied the allegations and said “there were no gender-based comments directed at her.”

"Although complainant is female, who rose through the ranks to the highest position, she was not as successful as chief, was heavy-handed with her authority … and alienated other officers and former chiefs,” according to a department statement contained in the state human rights division report.

Pannhurst provided 16 witnesses to a state investigator to corroborate her claims. Another 20-year veteran said a group that took issue with her gender led a campaign to call for a vote of no confidence and remove Pannhurst from her position after one year, according to the human rights investigation.

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