OCEAN CITY — An independent review of Ocean City’s emergency services dispatch system has confirmed the town has a major communication problem involving two key public safety departments.
The International City/County Management Association’s (ICMA) Center for Public Safety Management was commissioned by Ocean City last year to conduct an in-depth analysis of the town’s emergency services dispatch operation as a result of the town “facing a decision regarding the future of this department,” according to the 18-page document.
While heaping praise on the town’s communications center and its structure and operations, the report reaches a stern conclusion that there is a “disconnect in communication” between the Emergency Services Department and the Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD). The report was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Dispatch, and the ICMA presented its findings to the Mayor and Council in January in a closed session. A public reporting of the review, which was budgeted at $17,000 plus expenses, according to City Manager David Recor, is expected in the near future.
“It was immediately evident that communication between the fire departments and the Emergency Services Department was very poor. The situation appears to have been declining over the past five years,” the report reads. “The lack of communication has created an atmosphere of distrust and negative feelings within all three departments. This workplace atmosphere is troubling to the members of the fire departments and communication staff.”
The report continues, “The ICMA team recommends that this situation be dealt with immediately. The new city manager and the city council must now take charge of this situation and take immediate steps to end these negative relationships. If the negative relationship is allowed to continue, it will likely cause irreparable harm to the departments and staff involved, ultimately degrading service to citizens and other customers. … It is of great importance that all of the participants in the business of providing public safety services communicate with one another and focus on what is best for the town of Ocean City.”
In interviews with ICMA staff putting together the report, members of the OCFD command staff allege the current Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system and inadequate Emergency Service Department leadership has resulted in delayed responses to emergency calls. Among the OCFD representatives interviewed reportedly were Chief Chris Larmore, Deputy Chief Chris Shaffer and Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company 1st Assistant Chief Bo Duke.
“The fire chiefs complained that delays in dispatching the calls were lengthening the response time for fire and emergency medical calls,” the report reads. “The chiefs also indicated that there is little, if any, communication between the fire department and emergency communications staff to resolve these or other problems. This has created a difficult work environment for the dispatchers and a dysfunctional relationship at the management level.”
The ICMA’s thorough review was conducted by examining all aspects of the Emergency Services Department, including interviews with Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald and Communications Supervisor Christina Taylor, and evaluated its performances compared to industry standards. The ICMA team went into the evaluation process with the understanding there have been “ongoing complaints about the department’s performances emanating from the agencies it serves”. ICMA personnel conducted in-person interviews last October with members of the police department, fire department and emergency services. Additionally, the ICMA met with a focus group of city employees to further delve into specific operations.
OCFD Reports Multiple Delays In Response Times
While the examiners found a healthy relationship between the Ocean City Police Department and the Emergency Services Department, major concerns were found between the OCFD and Emergency Services. Furthermore, OCFD members went so far as to openly criticize the dispatch services, insinuating multiple times to the ICMA team that public safety is at risk under current leadership. Of the 6,000 calls for service in 2011, the department reported 10 chronicled “delays in response times”.
“[Names redacted] also indicated that they had seen a continuing decline in the quality of dispatch services resulting from inefficiencies and the lack of proper supervision, poor hiring practices, and ineffective training. They both said they favor returning to an independent dispatch system for fire and EMS calls,” the report reads.
Emergency Services Department reportedly addressed in the report those complaints, which were investigated carefully and discipline issued when necessary.
A common theme throughout the review of the dispatch system was the startling lack of communication between public safety departments, specifically the fire department led by Larmore and emergency services under Theobald. It’s well-known within city circles that animosity exists between Larmore and Theobald and dates back to when Larmore became fire chief in 2008.
In the report, “[Name redacted] agreed that there was insufficient communication and interaction between the fire departments and his department. He indicated that neither he nor the other members of his holds regularly scheduled meetings with the fire departments.”
In fact, all city personnel interviewed for the report confirm major communication issues exist between the OCFD and Emergency Services and are causing problems within the city. A representative of the city manager’s office, appointed to the focus group interviewed for this report, was quoted in the review as saying, “the communication issues between the fire departments and the emergency services staff are real and must be addressed. He said that this situation has been going on for a long time and is causing problems within the town.”
In interviews, OCFD officials indicated to ICMA there are no current efforts to address the communication divide because staff meetings have not been successful.
“He cited delays in dispatching calls to fire and EMS calls and in dispatching information at the scene. The chief cited two specific incidents involving delays in dispatching and relaying information. When asked about actions that have been taken to solve or investigate the issues further, [Name redacted] stated that meetings with the emergency services director have not been effective or productive. He told the ICMA team that information about the ongoing issues has been relayed to the new city manager, and that certain city council members are also aware of these incidents.”
In response, the report states, “The emergency services director and his staff counter these statements, saying they dispatch calls for emergency services as quickly as possible with professionalism and accuracy. They added that any concerns or complaints made known to the emergency communications department are investigated to determine whether they have merit and to take corrective action whenever possible.”
The report also included interviews with leaders of the Ocean City Police Department, who reported no concerns over the dispatching of calls.
“There appears to be a far healthier relationship between the police department and the emergency communications center. Police department representatives indicated that they had very few problems with the communications center …,” the report read.
Report Recommends New Management Model
Moving forward, the ICMA issued several recommendations, including one the town has already addressed in its recently completely new Memorandum of Understanding with the OCVFC.
“ICMA recommends that the memorandum of understanding that places the career fire chief position under the direction of the city council be rescinded. The career fire chief’s position should be accountable to the city manager and equal in status and authority to that of all of the other department directors, including chief of police and the director of emergency services,” the report reads.
“Under the current management model, the city manager does not directly control or manage the budgets of either the career or the volunteer fire department. The city manager must rely on cooperation with the fire chief and the city council to move and direct the fire service budgets. The city council must have a discussion about the current management model. They must clearly state their position. They have two alternatives: (1) to pass an ordinance that places the management of the fire services under the control of the city council or (2) to assign the city manager to manage the fire services. ICMA strongly recommends that the fire services be placed under the direction of the city manager.”
The new MOU between the OCVFC and the city essentially does just that, but was not a result of the ICMA report, according to Recor. Language in the previous MOU confirms it was voided when Larmore became a full-time, salaried chief back in 2011, rather than remaining at the $1-a-year salary. The new MOU removes Larmore from the document altogether and states, “the Fire Chief will report directly to the City Manager, on all matters relating to the discharge of this authority, and on the day to day operation of the Fire/EMS Division and the Deputy Chief/Fire Marshal.”
In its recommendation, the report also condemns a suggestion from the fire department that fire and EMS dispatching be separated into independent entities and returning to the former system prior to the advent of the current Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system.
“The fire departments leadership believes that the fire and EMS dispatching should be independent from the other public safety dispatch functions. They believe that they can better handle the needs of their departments by returning to the system utilized prior to the consolidation,” the report reads. “The communication operations that are now in place in Ocean City are what many cities and counties are trying to obtain. Consolidated communications for public safety organizations have shown tremendous increases in efficiency and effectiveness. … In these economic times the dividing of these operations would be wasteful and not in the best interest of Ocean City. … ICMA strongly recommends that the fire and EMS dispatch services remain assigned to the consolidated public service system that is now in place."
After the Mayor and Council were presented the ICMA report in January, Recor was instructed by the council to carry out the report’s recommendations. One step in that process is a quarterly meeting set for next week between Recor, Larmore and Theobald.
“I will facilitate the meeting between the three of us to engage in a dialogue,” Recor said.
Recor said evaluating the efficiency of the town’s communications dispatch system was his first major task upon taking over the town’s chief executive officer responsibilities last summer.
“Since it was my first major challenge, and I was the new kid on the block at that time, I recommended we bring in ICMA’s Center for Public Safety Management to work alongside the focus group to determine if our initial assessment was accurate, and that’s what we did,” Recor said. “It’s clear in the report there has been a communication breakdown, and the report was consistent with my initial assessment. … It’s primarily most important that we make sure that the fire chief and emergency services director are communicating better.”
While Recor acknowledged the communication issue, he said the ICMA also served a purpose in letting the city know its communications center is top notch.
“Their conclusion was we have a communications and dispatch center that every other municipality in the country aspires to,” he said. “They did not recommend any change to the structure and the bottom line came down to the fact that the communication and dispatch center was not receiving the support from its allied agencies that it needed to succeed. My role as a city manager is to facilitate that dialogue and right the ship if you will.”
City Manager Creating OCFD Action Plan
The OCFD has been embroiled in controversy in recent months with Recor and Larmore each having to weigh in on grievances by members of the department, ranging from denied summer leaves to alleged malfeasance during a controversial promotion process late last year to other personnel issues.
The bad will among members of the paid firefighter/paramedics was at least partially the motivation for Recor holdings meetings with the career EMS division without command staff present. Larmore maintains the disgruntled staff represents a vocal minority and that most of his employees are pleased with his leadership.
Recor said Wednesday the employee-only meetings are completed and he is formulating “a plan of action to move the organization forward.”
During what he called productive and long meetings with staff, Recor said he was asked to authorize a similar sort of independent study of the OCFD that was done on the emergency dispatch system. Recor has rejected that idea and feels confident he can address the current OCFD “turmoil,” a word Larmore used in an interview earlier this month.
“Several members that I spoke with actually encouraged the same kind of exercise, an independent assessment, but I feel like I have earned enough confidence and respect and credibility with the Mayor and Council now that I am not the new kid on the block,” Recor said. “I believe they will respect my judgment, my opinion and my plan of action moving forward. I don’t think it’s necessary to do an independent assessment. I have my thumb on it and we are going to move the department forward in a positive, productive manner. I know what needs to be done, and I don’t need an outside agency to validate that.”