NEW FOR TUESDAY: Berlin Ceasing All Financial Aid To Fire Company

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BERLIN — Citing hostile working conditions and unveiled hints of discrimination and harassment, the Berlin Mayor and Council today announced the town was disassociating itself from and ceasing all financial aid to the Berlin Fire Company (BFC).

The Berlin Mayor and Council on Tuesday announced it will amend its fiscal year 2013 budget to cease all financial aid to the BFC as a result of the organization’s inability to accept basic requirements of the town’s personnel policies to eliminate workplace harassment based on sexual orientation, race and sex of paid emergency medical services (EMS) employees at the Berlin Fire House. The funding support is also being withdrawn from the budget because the BFC has allegedly seriously breached the terms of an employment agreement for paid EMS personnel with the town in effect since 2009.

“Over the past six months, the Mayor and Council have done all that we can within our legal and moral authority to protect the rights of the paid EMS personnel who have been working as leased employees under the terms of an agreement enacted January 1, 2009,” said Berlin Mayor Gee Williams in a press release. “The fire company has been unsuccessful in its attempts to prevent some volunteer members from harassing Berlin’s paid EMS employees in the workplace that the town firmly believes is both unacceptable and illegal.”

The agreement to have paid EMS personnel begin working as employees of the town of Berlin in 2009 was made at the request of the BFC in order for them to be eligible for state retirement and town health benefits. At the time, the state of Maryland and the town of Berlin made it clear the employment of the EMS personnel, even as leased employees, could not be a sham and attempted to make clear the terms of the agreement in a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

“The Mayor and Council shall have primary direction and control over paid EMS personnel through its Town Administrator in accordance with the town of Berlin’s personnel policies and manual,” it read.

However, in late February, the paid EMS personnel informed the town of Berlin of complaints of discriminatory practices in the workplace including harassment and threats of retaliation based on sexual orientation, race and sex, according to a town release. The complaints were lodged against both the paid EMS employees and volunteer members of the Berlin Fire Company.

The Town Administrator and Human Resources Director immediately investigated the allegations and interviewed all 10 full-time EMS employees. As a result of the findings of the town’s investigation, the allegations of discriminatory practices based on sexual orientation, race and sex were corroborated and found to be credible, according to the Mayor and Council.

As it was a personnel matter, the Mayor and Council met in executive session on March 12 and voted unanimously to direct Town Attorney Dave Gaskill to prepare a memo for delivery the next day to the Berlin Fire Company informing the organization of the town’s findings that the complaints by the paid EMS employees were credible. The memo stated the town found the harassment complaints constituted, in the town’s opinion, violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of Maryland law, all of which prohibit such conduct in the workplace.

The memo also stated disciplinary actions for some paid EMS employees were necessary and appropriate to ensure that no discriminatory practices would continue by any paid EMS personnel employed by the town. In addition, while the town has no oversight authority over volunteer members, the March 13 memo also stated, “It is also certainly in the interest of the Berlin Fire Company to ensure that this illegal activity ceases immediately as it is subject to immense liability if a suit were to be filed against it.”

Throughout the summer, several weeks of communication followed between Gaskill and attorney Joe Moore, counsel for the Berlin Fire Company. The fire company accepted the town’s memo in May, only after being informed by the Mayor and Council that the fire company could not make its annual budget presentation without accepting the document in its entirety.

During the summer, the Berlin Fire Company conducted its own internal investigation into the allegations of harassment by EMS employees and as a result made some changes in its volunteer command structure. However, the town has continued to receive reports of harassment of EMS employees by volunteer fire company members, which were immediately shared with BFC leaders, according to the town.

However, in a memorandum to the Mayor and Council dated last week on Aug. 16, the fire company leadership asserted the elected officials’ actions usurped their authority over the organization and flat out told the Mayor and Council they were assuming control of all things related to emergency medical services.

“Effective immediately, the Berlin Fire Company will assume full control, direction and supervision over all emergency medical services (EMS) personnel,” the memo dated August 16 reads. “The town of Berlin has attempted to enlarge its scope of direction and control over personnel matters in accordance with the town’s personnel policies and manual, to operational matters relating to fire and emergency medical services. The town has no authority or expertise to do so. The company’s attempts to work with the town have been unsuccessful.”

The fire company’s memo dated Aug. 16 suggested the town’s intervention has compromised the organization’s ability to carry out its primary mission.

“To highlight but a few of the issues the company has been facing, incidents relating to emergency responses, scheduling and staffing are needlessly arising,” the fire company’s memo reads. “Personnel are, or claim to be, confused as to whom they should receive direction, even during emergency responses. The confusion has resulted in duties not being performed or performance of duties in an unprofessional manner. There has been an increase in the number of complaints, some unfounded, by personnel against one another and against company volunteers, as well as volunteers against personnel. There has been a marked decrease in the level of volunteer participation when an emergency situation arises.”

The fire company justified its decision to assume control over the EMS, citing public safety issues.

“All of these issues have detracted from the company’s primary mission- to serve and protect the public,” the memo reads. “This immediate change is in the best interest of public safety for the residents and visitors of the area that is served by the company.”

However, Williams said the town’s memo of last week is an unveiled attempt to deflect attention away from the complaints of harassment that ignited the controversy in the first place.

“It is evident from the decision of the fire company’s leadership last week to assume full control, direction and supervision over all EMS personnel that the Berlin Fire Company is not making a sincere effort to end the harassment and have not been acting in good faith with the town of Berlin to resolve these issues,” he said. “As a result of their decision, which, in effect, breaches and dissolves both the original 2009 memorandum of agreement and the more recent memo of March 13, the Mayor and Council have no alternative other than to immediately disassociate the town of Berlin with the Berlin Fire Company. We have been both disappointed and appalled with the fire company during this entire episode.”

Williams said the fire company’s claims that the town is overstepping its authority in terms of operational and personnel policy is unfounded.

“To claim that their operational problems are the fault of the town is ludicrous and illogical,” he said. “Their continued problems volunteer EMS participation and command and control issues are a direct result of the failure of the fire company leadership to stop all abusive workplace behavior and fill the paid EMS vacancy as requested by the town.”

The current fiscal year 2013 allocated $340,000 to the BFC and $215,360 to the fire company’s ambulance service. That’s about 28 percent of the BFC’s total budget. In his press release, the mayor said the BFC currently owes the town in excess of $150,000 for payroll expenses for paid EMS personnel for June through August. Williams said the council is demanding immediate payment of those expenses by the BFC.

Meanwhile, Berlin Councilwoman Lisa Hall weighed in on the issue today with a statement. As a past president and vice president of the Berlin Fire Company Auxiliary, Hall said she was saddened this situation got to the point the town was forced to pull funding from the organization, but stood by the decision.

“As an elected representative for the town of Berlin, my first duty and obligation is to ensure that the residents and ratepayers not be exposed to any financial risk from what I believe are violations of federal and state law,” she said. “Furthermore, it has come to my attention that less than 50 percent of the municipalities in Maryland provide any funding to their local volunteer fire companies.”

Hall said the actions of a few in the fire company have forced the town to act and she remains confident to residents of Berlin will support the decision when the facts are brought to light.

“It is unfortunate that I am heartbroken over actions of a few BFC volunteers and paid EMS employees,” she said. “I am confident though that when all the facts are presented, the Mayor and Council will have the support of the residents and ratepayers in this decision.”

The story is developing and The Dispatch will provide more details and information as they become available.

16 comments on “NEW FOR TUESDAY: Berlin Ceasing All Financial Aid To Fire Company

  1. I am proud of the City of Berlin for standing up for their EMS staff. At the same time it is completely pathetic that people from my hometown would be so ignorant to treat EMS heroes in such a way. These people are called upon night and day, Christmas, New Years, or whenever to save the lives of our family, friends and neighbors – and this is the thanks and respect that certain people in town give them??

    It also tarnishes the reputation of all of the other paid and volunteer firemen that have served the town and community over the years. Many VOLUNTEER firefighters have been bravely serving the town for decades out of their own kindness – leaving their spouses and kids at home while they voluntarily rush into fires to save the lives of others. I hope that one day those responsible for perpetuating this type of behavior (and those that support the people responsible) realize how much damage they have caused the community of Berlin by their idiotic and self-righteous behavior.

    So if your house catches fire or you are in a car accident and nobody responds, you can thank a handful of idiots at the Berlin Fire Company.

  2. There is so much more to this story! ONE employee has caused all this, with his inmature, childish self serving ways. I beg you get the entire story before passing judgement.

  3. I am very close to the story. From my perspective, others are passing judgment on that individual. That individual is a brave young man for standing up to people that are more than twice his age and act like they are still in high school. That young man has served since a cadet alongside other family members who have also served as VOLUNTEERS for that company fighting fires for their neighbors. Their family has given more of their life and honor to the Town of Berlin than you ever will. Your comments only show how there is a culture of perpetuating and covering up such behavior from upper management and entry level personnel. Good day.

  4. Good job City of Berlin! I am sure it was a tough decision and you all did the right thing. Harassment, of any kind, has no place in the workforce. Especially those in public safety. Kudos to those individuals that stepped up and stood up for their rights.

  5. This kind of thing has played out through the years in this Country and specifically Maryland suburbs. Balto. County, Anne Arundel, PG etc. As the suburbs grow it will be time for Worcester County to take over the fire service with paid professionals. What !! taxes, how will we pay ? blah blah. I would like this area to be more rural but it ain’t gonna happen. Lawsuits, huge settlements, power struggles between good ole boys and politicians will necessitate the County steps in.They already are admitting a decreased level of service. Soon most citizens will realize that for the same donations the give to these dinosaurs, you could have consitant Those who have not learned from history are bound to repeat it.

  6. (got cut off…..)
    consistent level of service county wide for little more. You do not need 3-4 pumpers, trucks,squads at one house, except for bragging rights at parades. Worcester County Government- you have allowed all this growth, it’s transition time from the old days. Step in and provide services, AACO, Balto Co, PG realized this too.

  7. Why do I always, ALWAYS hear ff’s and emt’s behaving like children?

    Especially in rural areas where there is a mix of paid workers and volunteers.

    Seems like the ones not in charge, desperately want to be, and the ones in charge want to make sure everyone else knows they are in charge.

    Little boys still in high school. They have no real authority in life so they join a fire company in hopes of getting some and acting the big shot.

    If I were council, I’d fire the lot of you and hire a whole new crew with a structured leadership tree and professionals.

    People who don’t have the need to be called heroes and ‘bravely’ serving the town.

    What an embarrassment they are to the citizens of Berlin and to some of their co-workers.

    Grow up and put on your big boy panties.

  8. Wow…I am totally shocked that your problems have reached this point. I grew up in O.C. and the Fire Fighters and EMT’s back in the day (50′s and 60′s) were about service to the people of their town and so were the members of the Berlin Fire Dept. Issues were worked out because the service was more important. I am sorry things have changed. Harrassment and anti bigotry laws were

  9. (got cut off) the anti harrassment laws were enacted because they were morally right. If you don’t like someone because of who or what they are, don’t invited them to dinner, but leave them alone in the workplace!!!!!!

  10. So many comments from so many that don’t know the facts. These things have been going on for 50yrs plus. I grew up in the fire service..paid and volunteer. I also know this “brave” young man you all are talking about. So here are some facts about him. He has done the same to others and dished out as much as he has been given over the years. He is just trying to take the heat off himself for Accident he was involved in……Not saying that the others involved are right in there actions but if your going to dish it out than be prepared to take it. It happens at every Fire/EMS organization nation wide. So calling him brave is not the right term. Just get your facts before judging

  11. Obviously I have no idea what is truely happening in the department since I’m not involved. If it really is only one person causing all the problems, then deal with that individual, don’t let everybody else, including the town of Berlin pay for one person’s ignorance.

  12. sandboxreferee:
    Just a question, WHO are you to determine what is or is not needed on the scene of a fire? Just a little information for ya (but I am sure you already know because your so smart) The response guidelines are set forth by…wait for it…..The county and they are called “Box Alarms” and although it may seem like “Parade Rights” to you, but it is necessary to ensure the safety of EVERYONE (The victims, the firefighters and EMS) on scene of the particular incident. So the county has allowed the growth because it is necessary…Maybe you should do a little research before you make any statements against the responses’ of the Fire Dept or how the county runs it…In closing, I am NOT a member or Berlin..BUT “There are 3 sides to every story” (1) Berlin VFC, (2) The Town of Berlin, (3) THE TRUTH…So let’s wait on #3 before we make any more comments…Good day

  13. sandboxreferee,
    I need to apologize for part of my statement..I mis-read who the submitted the comments about responses..But let’s wait to hear everything before passing judgement on either party…AACO Fire Officer…YOU should check yor facts about the response guidelines in the county…Better yet maybe you should just move to AACO since their Fire Dept is doing so well right now…(sarcasm)

  14. Many who know volunteer firefighters anywhere on Delmarva know how volunteer fire companies remain one of the last “accepted” havens for bigotry and discrimination. Most of these companies do so under the guise of being private corporations, but at the same time getting large sums of public money from their states, counties, and in some cases their cities.

    Ever since September 11, 2001, there has been this attitude of entitlement and arrogance. How dare anyone question a firefighter or paramedic over anything, they risk their lives to save others so they should be allowed to do as they please. Unfortunately, this attitude goes against everything that most of them believe.

    It is a shame that Berlin had to take such drastic actions, but it would seem that the fire company failed to fully understand their obligations under the agreement that they signed. I’d be surprised if their attorney hasn’t explained this to them, but not surprised if the fire company still wants to stand up against a wrong that they feel is being perpetrated against them.

  15. It was a few EMS staff that were being harassed by MANY, not all, within the department. It was the “one” person that was strong enough to step forward and report it.

    Many of those yahoos thought they could get away with it. I am proud of my town for taking a stance and doing a full investigation to validate the complaints.

    I have contributed a long time to the Berlin VFD but will not anymore after talking to several folks and learning what was happening. Completely disgusted that folks doing the harassing are still part of the VFD. It is illegal and I hope those fools get taken to court.

  16. Nobody U Know..
    Ever since September 11, 2001, there has been this attitude of entitlement and arrogance. How dare anyone question a firefighter or paramedic over anything, they risk their lives to save others so they should be allowed to do as they please. Unfortunately, this attitude goes against everything that most of them believe.** Please clarify…** I am not sure what you are saying here…Is it the few or the many…JustSay’n…

    Alegations about the Fire service and bigotry…Do know this to be fact or are merely spewing rhetoric…Just say’n

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