EL TORO — After a six-week review, investigators at the Marine Corps Air Station here have cleared base Fire Department supervisors of any wrongdoing in the purchase of more than $20,000 in communications equipment for four firetrucks, officials said Thursday.
A call to the Pentagon's fraud hot line in Washington, questioning the need to install cassette decks and AM-FM radios on firetrucks, had triggered the review in mid-March. The purchase had also caused some grumbling both inside and out of the department.
But Col. Roger Milton, the base inspector at the El Toro base whose office handled the review, said Thursday that the "inquiry into the matter has been completed . . . (and) there were no irregularities" in the purchase of the communications equipment earlier this year.
"The equipment is required, the equipment is necessary, and the equipment is in use out in town," the colonel said, citing its implementation in several other departments in Orange County. But he added: "I don't have the time or the inclination to get into the details."
The base Fire Department spent about $5,500 per vehicle to equip at least four El Toro firetrucks with an elaborate communications system that includes four headsets for each truck, with two-way intercoms, cassette decks and AM-FM radios, among other features.
The makers of the system at Westnet in Santa Ana say the main advantage of the system over standard walkie-talkies is that the headsets protect the firefighters' ears. But some Fire Department employees at El Toro have suggested that the primary change with the new system is that firefighters can now listen to taped and broadcast music while out of their stations.
Officials at the Orange County Fire Department have also questioned the need for the system, saying that it could interfere with the business of tracking emergencies and that it is strictly prohibited at their own department.
In recent weeks, investigators from the base inspector's office interviewed officials at the Fire Department about how the system was purchased and how it works, employees there said.
And the conclusion, said Maj. Jim V. McClain, spokesman at the El Toro Marine base, was that "there was no wrongdoing."
McClain said the base review concluded that the purchase had gone through normal procedures for competitive bidding to ensure that it was cost-effective. He declined, however, to release the inspector's report on the review.
Said Dick Matheny, senior engineer at Westnet: "The system we designed for (the El Toro Fire Department) was exactly what they should have, so I concur with the decision that this was proper."
The inspector's report now goes to Washington for review by the inspectors general of both the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense.
Those offices can either sign off on the base's conclusions or send them back to El Toro for further review, said Col. Jim Williams, deputy inspector general for the Marine Corps. Reports are sent back to local commands "fairly frequently," he added.
"I haven't seen the report yet, and I can't comment on it," Williams said.
At the Marine base fire departments in Tustin and El Toro, word spread throughout the day about the inspector's report, which Col. Milton said had been completed Wednesday.
Chief Clinton Arnett, a civilian who heads the El Toro base Fire Department, said he was "not permitted to comment on this."