Oak Grove's embattled firefighters, who say delay and indecision may have contributed to the death of an elderly man in a March 5 house fire, have been ordered to stop discussing the incident or face losing their jobs.

The order, which was read to firefighters Wednesday at a scheduled drill, was confirmed Thursday by Chantell Knauss, the city administrator who wrote the one-page memo. Not all of the firefighters agreed to sign the memo, as was requested.

Referring directly to the March 5 fire and criticism of the department discussed at City Council meetings Monday and April 14, the memo states:

"All Employees, including Paid on-call Fire Department personnel, City Council members and City staff need to immediately stop talking about or commenting, publicly or privately, on tactical responses, opinions about employment matters or observations about the same."

The memo further states that a pending investigation "will severely be compromised by continued comment and attempts to influence others with public comment." It says employees who fail to follow the directive not to talk "shall be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.''

Knauss recommended at Monday's meeting that the city hire an investigator independent of the department. She suggested a recently retired fire chief from the south metro area who plans to charge $100 per hour for an estimated 30 hours work.

A formal contract has yet to be drawn, Knauss said Thursday. She declined to give the candidate's name.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the gag order could be a violation of city employees' First Amendment rights. But the city would be within its rights to order employees not to talk during an investigation.

"In this case, it's kind of sticky because there's this ongoing investigation," said Teresa Nelson, staff legal counsel for the ACLU in St. Paul. Reminded that the investigation has yet to begin, Nelson said, "Look, we don't want to prejudice an investigation, but to say they can't comment at all may be going a little too far."

Several Oak Grove firefighters have complained that top recruits for officers' jobs within the department have been shunned for less qualified applicants. Fire Chief Tony Hennemann explained last month that personalities also factor into deciding who is promoted.

The issue was raised long before the March 5 fire, started by a child playing with a charcoal-grill lighter. Last June 25, former chief and department charter member Ron Lohse told the City Council that the selection committee had "not recommended the most qualified individual" for a key officer's position and that "the selection process has been compromised by politics and personal opinions."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419