NEW FOR THURSDAY: Berlin Fire Company Maintains Scheduling Control, Not Allegations, At Root Of Dispute

NEW FOR THURSDAY: Berlin Fire Company Maintains Scheduling Control, Not Allegations, At Root Of Dispute
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BERLIN — The town of Berlin this week pulled all Berlin Fire Company (BFC) funding early this week, citing a continued pattern of harassment and discrimination, but BFC leadership fired back today the issue has more to do with the control than workplace hostility.

On Tuesday, the Berlin Mayor and Council announced it was yanking the roughly $600,000 in funding from the fiscal year 2013 budget for the BFC and its associated EMS department over allegations of discrimination and harassment that came to light in the department earlier this year. Today, the Berlin Fire Company, through its attorney Joe Moore, said the abrupt defunding came after the fire company attempted to reassume control over the scheduling of its paid professionals and volunteers.

In March, formal complaints were filed against certain members of the Berlin Fire Company’s EMS division alleging workplace harassment and discrimination. The town, through its human resources director and town administrator, conducted an investigation that allegedly confirmed the validity of the complaints. Shortly thereafter, an EMS supervisor who had served the town for 22 years was terminated by the town. That supervisor, Norris Phillip Donohoe, Jr., has since filed a wrongful termination suit against the Berlin Mayor and Council in Worcester County Circuit Court.

However, in the wake of the allegations, the town hired a new EMS supervisor and the new hire, along with Town Administrator Tony Carson, began handling all of the scheduling for the EMS. Five months later, on Aug. 16, the BFC asserted in a memo the scheduling efforts by the lay individuals risked compromising public safety and attempted to reassume control of the operations.

On Tuesday, the other shoe dropped when the town announced it was pulling all of the funding for the BFC, and not just the EMS funding, which has been at the root of the issue since March. The town provided roughly $237,000 in EMS funding in the current budget and a total of around $557,360 to the entire fire company. Moore said Thursday the issue began with the discrimination complaints, but the town had not been forthcoming with the information.

“As a result of our discussions, we asked for the complaints of the allegations of harassment and discrimination and asked for the town’s report of the investigation,” he said. “We were refused access to that information because the town said it was a personnel issue and it could not be shared with an outside entity. The fire company is not an outside entity. The fire company is the employer and clothes and equips them and owns everything they use down to the last Band-Aid.”

Stopping short of acknowledging any wrongdoing, Moore said Thursday the fire company conducted its own investigation and changes were made to satisfy the conditions set down by the town at the risk of losing the funding.

“We had to respond by requiring workplace sensitivity training of all of the members of the company on the pain of dismissal,” he said. “All 65 members attended and will continue to do so annually. The requirements of the Mayor and Council were complied with.”

The BFC maintains the scheduling issue, and not the discrimination and harassment issue, is at the heart of the conflict with the town.

“The discrimination allegations were the inception of all this, but the control of the scheduling and operations is at the heart of it,” he said. “The town, for their own reasons, has said we’re telling you what allegedly occurred, but we’re not providing you with the information. I don’t want to make the impression the fire company was not aware of the allegations, but from a legal standpoint, we feel like we’re entitled to know what it is that was said or done. Nobody has sued the fire company for discrimination or creating a hostile workplace.”

Moore said the town’s decision to pull funding for its fire company, and not just the EMS, came after the BFC attempted to assert its control over scheduling and operational issues.

“It’s regrettable,” he said. “It’s a damn shame we are where we are, but the fire company has attempted to control its own employees. We found out in August it wasn’t working. We’re not asking for total control, we’re just asking for participation in order to make sure the town’s public safety needs are met.”

Meeting those needs remains a priority for the BFC despite the drastic reduction in funding.

“The sole mission of the Berlin Fire Company since its inception 102 years ago, has been public safety,” he said. “They’re going to continue to do the best they can to maintain public safety. The loss of $600,000 is a significant adverse effect on the whole situation and the coupling of the fire safety funding with the EMS funding has created a substantial situation for public safety.”

It remains to be seen what happens next, but Moore said the fire company desires an amenable solution.

“The mayor has said this will likely end up in court,” he said. “I remain hopeful we can find a solution short of that. The citizens of this town ought not be faced with this. I’m hopeful we can work out a solution.”