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An Eagan Fire Department veteran gets outed, then mysteriously demoted

The Eagan Fire Department has been seeking more committed firefighters for years. Dan Benson (not pictured) is exactly the kind they need.

The Eagan Fire Department has been seeking more committed firefighters for years. Dan Benson (not pictured) is exactly the kind they need. Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Dan Benson can’t recall what caught his attention about a personal ad he saw in the Twin Cities Reader in late 1988. What he remembers isn’t romantic at all.

Benson, then 24, had moved back in with his parents in Stillwater, and was in bed with the shingles. At first, he avoided meeting the man who’d placed the ad, instead spending hours talking to him on the phone.

He would eventually move into his new boyfriend’s Burnsville condo. Later, they bought their first house together.

By the late 1990s, Benson had spent a decade and a half at an unfulfilling desk job at the University of Minnesota. He saw a poster recruiting firefighters in Eagan, where he and his partner had settled.

Though they’re called “volunteers,” Eagan’s department is a “paid on-call” force. Most members work other jobs, and are only paid when they train or respond to a call.

Benson thrived and was promoted through the ranks, eventually becoming a battalion chief, supervising emergency scenes. If he was first to arrive, he did CPR. He’s not bragging when he says a few people are still walking around Eagan because of him. That’s just his job. Or it was.

Last October, Chief Mike Scott informed officers they would all have to reapply for their jobs. Benson says the chief explained this was merely a way to make sure everyone was in the job they wanted.

At the meeting, the chief asked firefighters to answer a few questions of the personal, get-to-know-your-co-workers variety. Benson jotted some notes, writing that he sells “music collectibles,” “used to work at First Avenue,” and he “always wanted to be a [firefighter] since [he] saw a neighbor’s house burn down in 1969.”

He also mentioned that he’s married to a guy named Greg, that they’re dads to a 14-year-old boy, and have hosted exchange students who they “consider sons.”

Benson’s closest friends in the department knew he was gay. Others might’ve figured it out over the years. But this was the first time he’d explicitly outed himself.

A few days after Thanksgiving, Scott called Benson into his office. The chief ran down a list of issues with Benson’s performance. The letter explained that Benson’s reapplication was denied, and that he could be rehired as a “firefighter” — entry-level and four ranks lower than battalion chief, and without the $8,000 annual stipend that comes with that rank.

Benson disputed Scott’s reasons for demoting him, which didn’t include anything about fighting flames. Benson used a personal cell phone for “department business,” read one accusation. Another said he’d posted video of a fire to Youtube. (Benson explained the video was uploaded under a private, invitation-only setting, which he’d done at the request of Burnsville’s fire chief.)

In person, and then in his own letter, Benson argued he’d never been docked for performance or attendance. “I responded to more calls than any other chief,” he wrote in a letter to city officials. “I saved some lives and I put out some fires.”

Earlier this month, his attorneys served Eagan with a civil complaint, alleging their client had been discriminated against for his sexual orientation, and for not conforming to “Scott’s expectations” that his firefighters “must be ‘manly’ men who are attracted to and date only women.”

Benson suggests Scott is not himself a bigot, and might have been acting to keep peace with other, less open-minded firefighters.

Scott declined to answer questions, but offered a statement: In light of a reorganizing of the “number and location” of its firehouses, the department decided an “elimination of some of the prior appointed leadership positions” was in order.

That version conflicts with Benson’s lawsuit, which contends he was the only person demoted or even forced to re-interview, and that his battalion chief job was given to a straight man.

The Eagan Fire Department has been facing a crisis for several years running now, one that Scott has spoken of often: It can’t retain people. As one of the last big departments depending on on-call volunteers, Eagan’s stream of able bodies has died down to a flicker. Last year, it had 87 volunteers, about 60 percent of the number on call in 2010.

Given the situation, you’d think Scott would hold on for dear life to someone like Dan Benson, who wrote to city officials that he’d “arranged [his] life around the department.” Benson was approaching the 20-year mark, at which point his retirement plan would be 100 percent vested.

If Benson quits before reaching 20 years, he estimates he’d leave $50,000 in pension funds on the table.

The Sunday before last, even with his legal claim pending, Benson answered his first call back on the job, this time as a rookie working alongside — and beneath — firefighters he’d hired over the years.

“I got a lot of hugs when I got back, people were glad to see me,” he says. “There’s people I love on that department. They’re my brothers and sisters.”

He says he doesn’t want to do anything to hurt them, and that his fight with the city is about bigger things.

“I was kind of like, ‘Fuck it,’ when it first happened,” he says. “But talking to friends, it’s just like you can’t let that happen. And with a lot of gay friends, they’re like, ‘You can’t let that happen to us.’ And I agreed with that. It’s not right.”

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