BERLIN — While the Berlin Fire Company (BFC) was found without fault in the transporting of an accident victim in December that ultimately died, the agency that investigated the incident did warn that “significant underlying tensions” between the company and the town of Berlin are a cause for concern.
Mayor Gee Williams made it clear today that he was not happy with the state investigation and accused those involved of “passing the buck.”
In January, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems (MIEMSS) began looking into the events surrounding a Dec. 26 car accident that led to a fatality. After the incident, town leadership questioned whether some BFC members acted professionally in the period immediately following the collision. The pin of the town’s argument was that a Berlin police officer was required to drive a BFC ambulance because company infighting caused some members to not wish to work with others, charges which the company entirely denies.
Both the town council and the BFC asked MIEMSS to look into the matter in January though MIEMSS has only responded directly to the town as of Tuesday.
The agency determined this week that there was no delay of services following the accident and that the BFC members on the scene fully achieved state emergency requirements. Dr. Richard Alcorta, state EMS Medical Director, took point on the investigation.
“As a result, we have determined that the pre-hospital emergency medical services care rendered to the victims of the motor vehicle crash met the standard of care for the delivery of such services; appropriate care was rendered to the patients; and there was no delay in transport,” wrote Alcorta in a letter to Berlin.
During their investigation, MIEMSS agents conducted 48 interviews with 26 people, checked related medical records as well as conducted a multi-panel medical review.
In his letter with the report, Alcorta cleared the BFC of any lack of service or misbehavior following the accident.
MIEMSS findings fall in line with what the company predicted since the investigation began, noted BFC President David Fitzgerald.
“We’re very pleased and it’s what we expected,” he said.
However, Alcorta warned the company and the town that the nearly year-long grudge match between the two parties is jeopardizing safety in Berlin.
According to Alcorta, “significant underlying tensions surrounding the delivery of emergency medical services in Berlin have the potential to impact patient care and must be addressed.” In trying to resolve the months of hostility, Alcorta recommended that the BFC, Town Council, and Worcester County EMS “engage in meaningful efforts” to clear the air.
Fitzgerald has stated for months that his side is willing to meet with the town, potentially with an unbiased third-party present, to negotiate.
Disagreements between the town and company last summer resulted in Berlin yanking all funding, roughly $600,000, to the BFC. Since that time Fitzgerald said his group is willing to play ball and hopes to restore as much of that funding as possible. If the town continues to keep the company cut off, then there’s a risk of equipment and training suffering from the stalemate, he said.
With the town budget season approaching, Fitzgerald confirmed that the BFC plans on submitting a normal budget to the town and will include financial data previously requested by the council.
“It’s still our intent to submit to the town at the normal budgetary time and to submit the information they requested,” he said.
But any “meaningful efforts” at fence-mending aren’t possible right now, according to Williams, who asserted that the state has washed its hands of the issue and left it up to Berlin to clean up a mess he feels the town is unequipped to tackle.
“For now, MIEMSS has passed the buck,” he said. “The letter from Dr. Alcorta in essence says, yes there is a problem here, but it is up to the Town of Berlin to resolve the issue.”
It is Williams’ opinion that the “root of this and other serious problems at the Berlin Fire House” is the command structure and volunteer firefighter leadership. That leadership must be changed, the mayor claimed, before any reduction in tensions becomes practical.
In his response to the MIEMSS investigation, Williams was critical of the BFC. Though MIEMSS cleared company members, Williams asserted that nearly two-dozen firefighters failed to act in a professional manner after the collision.
The ambulance that transported the accident victim on Dec. 26 would not have had a driver if a Berlin police officer hadn’t volunteered, the mayor claimed, since “over 20 Berlin Fire Company members either refused or failed to provide this very basic and simple task.”
“The Berlin Fire Company maintains they are not answerable to anyone, and so far in this sorry episode, apparently they are correct in assuming this is true,” stated Williams. “I believe I have the upbringing and experience to know right from wrong, and if there is any accountability for the unacceptable misdeeds of a few members of the Berlin Fire Company, then I must trust that the legal ramifications of this sordid mess have only just begun.”
Fitzgerald called the mayor’s statements on accountability “the farthest thing from the truth.”
“We are answerable, we feel, to the public and the citizens that we serve when they call us every day for 911,” said Fitzgerald. “We have responded appropriately and efficiently despite the town’s actions to remove the funding.”
The references to MIEMSS “passing the buck” after the investigation also drew criticism from Fitzgerald.
“I think it’s very disrespectful that [Mayor Gee Williams] said MIEMSS passed the buck,” said Fitzgerald. “They are a respected state agency for EMS and if they did an investigation and conducted 40 some interviews, for him to say they passed the buck is certainly not accurate. It sounds like, to me, they did a very thorough investigation.”
With the MIEMSS investigation concluded and the BFC prepared to submit a budget and give the town requested data, Fitzgerald said he’s hopeful that “critical” funding will be restored to the company this spring despite Williams’ claims that fire house leadership is still an issue.