OCEAN CITY — The resort’s Fire/EMS union this week wants to use a favorable arbitration ruling in a disciplinary action against a paramedic for a delayed response last summer as leverage in the ongoing debate about the elimination of the 24-hour shifts, but city officials are saying not so fast.
Last July, a three-member paramedic team did not immediately respond to an early morning call involving an assault victim at a mid-town nightclub, triggering a one-day suspension without pay for the crew’s only full-time paramedic. According to the agreed upon facts in the case, the first call came in at 1:36 a.m. and was not immediately answered by the Paramedic 3 team. A second call came in at 1:45 a.m. and the Paramedic 3 team did respond.
However, the response was nearly 10 minutes later, or well outside requisite two-minute response time. The fire department disciplined Firefighter-Paramedic Mark Lloyd, the only full-time member of the crew. The other crew members were part-time employees and not subject to discipline under the collective bargaining agreement. The fire department contended the three-member crew slept through the initial call, while the paramedics contended they never received the first call at 1:36 a.m. through the usual protocols including a radio, pagers and a station alert loudspeaker. This week, neutral arbitrator Homer La Rue ruled in favor of the paramedics, essentially opining the outdated call alert system failed and was responsible for the delayed response and cleared Lloyd of any wrongdoing.
The Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, quickly jumped on the arbitrator’s favorable ruling as an opportunity to illustrate the town’s perceived flawed reasoning for eliminating the 24-hour shifts for paramedics and firefighters. In February, the clock expired on negotiations between the town and the IAFF 4269 on a new three-year contract, resulting in the town’s “last, best and final offer” essentially becoming the new contract by default. The negotiations broke down at the 11th hour over the town’s unwavering position of eliminating the paramedics’ long-standing 24-hour shifts.
Most paramedics work in 24-hour shifts, followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons, including potential missed calls or delayed responses, the town remained adamant about the elimination of the 24-72 rotation in favor of an alternative 12-hour shift or some hybrid of the two. Despite the “last and best” offer becoming the new contract by default, there has been some cursory discussions about finding some middle ground although the two sides apparently remain far apart.
City officials have shown no inclination to move away from eliminating the 24-hour shifts and the IAFF remains adamant the 24-hour shift best suits their needs. After La Rue’s final ruling was released on Wednesday, the IAFF said the reversal of the disciplinary action against Lloyd proved the town’s antiquated alert system and not the paramedics sleeping during overnight shifts was responsible for the delayed response, at least in this particular case.
“Yesterday, an independent arbitrator issued a decision vindicating Firefighter-Paramedic Mark Lloyd and lending credence to the IAFF’s position in recent negotiations with the town of Ocean City,” the union’s statement reads. “Last summer, the Fire Department alleged that Firefighter-Paramedic Lloyd and two other employees serving together as a unit slept through a call and thereby caused a significant delay in responding. In a 19-page decision, Arbitrator Homer La Rue concluded that Firefighter-Paramedic Lloyd was not culpable for the delay. Instead, the arbitrator found that it is more likely than not that there was a technical snafu which caused a failure in the alert system via the radio, the pager and the station alert loud speakers. The arbitrator got it right.”
As a result, the IAFF said in the statement the arbitrator’s ruling was reason enough to get the town and the union back to the table over the 24-hour shift elimination issue.
“The arbitrator’s decision lends credence to Local 4269’s position in recent collective bargaining negotiations,” the statement reads. “In the course of the negotiations, the department repeatedly asserted that this incident and others was evidence that firefighter-paramedics were sleeping through calls. On that basis, the town has demanded an end to 24-hour shifts and an end to the opportunity to rest at night. Local 4269 challenged the department’s assertions and has remained steadfast that the changes demanded by the town will not address the real issues facing the department.”
The union stated the arbitrator’s ruling in the specific case from last July reinforced keeping the 24-hour shift in place and should have the town and its fire department reviewing its current dispatch system.
“Local 4269 hopes that the arbitrator’s decision will prompt the town to rethink its position and return to bargaining with Local 4269 so that together they can address issues like the antiquated alerting system and communications protocols to provide exceptional service to the town’s residents and visitors,” the statement read.
However, city officials do not see it that way. In a statement, Mayor Rick Meehan expressed disappointment in the arbitrator’s decision, but did not hold it against the 10-year veteran Lloyd.
“I am disappointed in the arbitrator’s interpretation of the facts and his decision,” he said. “However, Mark Lloyd is a fine paramedic, the decision has been made, it is what it is and it is time to move forward.”
Nonetheless, the town continues to remain adamant about eliminating the 24-72 rotation and contends the decision made on a single case from last July, essentially made in a vacuum, does not change the city’s position on the 24-hour shift. During earlier debates, the union has suggested there have been no more than five missed calls or delayed responses in the recent years, while Fire Chief Chris Larmore has said the number is closer to 350.
“This decision, however, does not change the Mayor and Council’s position with regard to eliminating the 24-hour shifts,” he said. “In his opinion, the judge clearly acknowledged that all members of the shift in question were asleep. It is very hard to imagine that this did not play a role in the delayed response.”
Meehan continues to contend the arbitrator’s ruling relates to a single case and not the entire volume of calls handled, and potentially missed, by paramedics.
“Of course, the arbitration did not address the safety factor associated with the paramedic-firefighters working 24-hour shifts, which is a very important consideration,” he said. “Our department has changed and the number of calls we receive has increased dramatically in recent years. Over 80 percent of calls received are now calls for medical service, not fire calls.”
Whether the number is five or 350, Meehan said the potential for even one missed call or delayed response was reason enough to eliminate the 24-hour shift.
“It is 2016 and we believe it is in the best interest of the department, and the residents and visitors we provide this essential service to, to move away from 24-hour shifts,” he said. “It is our goal to work with the department to be proactive and continue to improve the service we provide whether that call comes at 4 p.m. or 4 a.m. God forbid we do not make this change, something tragic happens and we have to look back and say to ourselves we had the opportunity to make this change and we didn’t do it.”
In the arbitrator’s 19-page ruling, the current protocols for dispatching paramedics were outlined. The dispatch system includes the radio, the pager, which is on at all times, and a station alert loud speaker. The dispatcher hits a button and the call goes to the radio, a tone goes to the pager and then there is a station alert over the loud speaker.
When the call went out at 1:36 a.m., there should have been an acknowledgment of receipt by Paramedic 3 in 30 seconds. If there was no response after 60 seconds, the dispatcher should have dispatched a different crew. According to the arbitration report, the dispatcher did not attempt to reassign the call in the required time.
The arbitration hearing required the town to provide unequivocal evidence that the paramedic crew slept through the first call before answering the second call nearly 10 minutes later. In his opinion, La Rue said the town failed to meet the burden of proof.
“The employer has the burden to prove by a preponderance of the credible evidence that there was just cause to impose discipline on the employee,” the arbitrator’s ruling reads. “In the instant matter, based on the totality of the record, the town has failed to meet its burden of proof.”
According to the arbitrator’s ruling, it appears there is no doubt that there was a call to dispatch and an alert sent out at 1:36 a.m. The bigger question is whether it was more likely than not that the call was received over the radio, the pager and the station alert loud speaker.
“Without a showing that the dispatch system worked as it was supposed to work, the arbitrator is unable to find the town’s theory of the case persuasive,” the ruling reads. “The absence of a convincing showing that the equipment operated properly undermines the town’s theory of the grievant’s culpability.”
In short, the town’s failed dispatch system, which is nearing “end of life,” and not the paramedics sleeping, was the apparent cause for the delayed response in the July incident.
“The town has the responsibility to maintain an equipment alert system that is reliable so that the crews may respond in a timely manner was rightfully demanded by the fire department,” the ruling reads. “The arbitrator cannot reasonably conclude, based on this record, that the equipment involved did operate as expected.”
As a result, La Rue reversed the disciplinary action against Lloyd and directed the town to make the veteran paramedic whole again.
“The arbitrator concludes that the town has failed to prove just cause for the imposition of discipline on the grievant,” the ruling reads. “The grievant is entitled to have the disciplinary suspension removed from his record and is entitled to back pay for any monies lost and restoration of benefits as a result of the wrongful disciplinary action.”