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Published On: 3/6/13

NEW FOR WEDNESDAY: OC Fire Dept. Embroiled In ‘Turmoil’; City Manager To Form Focus Groups; Employees’ Spouses Create Support Group

By: Steven Green via Maryland Coast Dispatch

OCEAN CITY -- Armed with concerns over hostile workplace conditions for Ocean City career firefighter-paramedics and deteriorating morale, a group of more than a dozen spouses has been formed to provide support and promote an improved direction for the city’s first responders.

The creation of the support group is the latest controversy to embroil the Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD), leading Chief Chris Larmore in an interview Monday to refer to the current state of affairs as “turmoil”.

In recent months, serious accusations have been made about the OCFD and its alleged culture of stress and negativity, including several grievances filed against leadership and recent decisions, but it was not until this week that the specific concerns were vocalized, confirming further these are tumultuous times for the OCFD.

In an interview last Friday, five spouses of veteran career firefighter/paramedics shared their support group’s mission and explained why they are banding together in the hopes of improving work conditions for their husbands. The support group currently has about 15 members and has met four times with future meetings planned.

“We strive to support the members of the Ocean City Fire Department’s Fire/EMS Division as they provide exemplary service and protection to the residents and visitors of the Town of Ocean City,” reads the mission statement of Fully Involved S.T.A.F.F. (Standing Tall Around Firefighters). “Through our efforts, we hope to promote positive growth and direction within the Division thus ensuring the safety and well being of those who serve as they serve others.”

The support group is actively seeking like-minded family and friends of the career firefighter/paramedics. In a letter to prospective members, the group detailed its general focus areas. They include “the hostile work environment, unnecessary and excessive stress, denied summer leave for family vacations, negative attacks in the press, potential schedule changes affecting livelihoods, departure and potential departure of qualified, tenured personnel due to current administration and state of department, questionable qualifications of leadership and elimination of special ops programs.”

The wives spoke to The Dispatch on the condition of anonymity as they fear “retaliation” against their husbands by the OCFD, which was created six years ago after a heated disconnect between the paid staff, leadership and the volunteers boiled into a city-wide controversy that included spirited comments from elected officials as well as business owners on both sides of the discourse.

Larmore, who had been the volunteer chief previously for two years, was the first chief of the merged group and has held the position since 2008. He accepted the job for an annual salary of $1 initially but has since been restored to an annual wage consistent with other city department heads. Today’s OCFD is now a combination volunteer and career member body, consisting of three divisions -- the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company, the Fire/EMS division and the Office of the Fire Marshal.

“I think if the public knew how the men and women who take care of them are being treated, I don’t think they would stand for it. The public is being served and the people who provide that service are being treated like a doormat,” said the wife of a long-time firefighter/paramedic with more than 25 years of service.

Another wife of a veteran city firefighter/paramedic added, “We are willing to accept the stress of them risking their lives, but not an attack on really good people with lies. They have no means to really defend themselves, and that’s why we decided we had to do something. We have to do this because they can’t. This is disrupting our lives. We have men being taken to the hospital with chest pains over this. We have men crying in their counselors’ chairs with depression. We have men on medication. We have men yelling at their children on a regular basis because they have so much anger inside them over how they are being treated at work.”

Another wife said she fears the current culture will lead to resignations and retirements of the city’s veteran firefighter/paramedics. In fact, one long-time, high-profile member of the career team recently picked up his papers and is weighing resignation and retirement options.

“We are not a bunch of wet hens. This is not a bunch of mumbo jumbo. This is real life. There are fairness issues. It’s a stressful profession and we all know that, but what they have to deal with daily from the administration and the chief makes it unbearable,” that wife said.

Larmore takes exception to those characterizations of his department under his leadership and believes his primary responsibility as OCFD chief is to the taxpayers and that he operates his department like it’s a business. He cited the approximately $400,000 decrease in payroll costs that have been implemented during his tenure as evidence of that commitment.

“I understand some of my providers are not happy with me, but change is difficult. I’m sure some of the wives who met with you, their husbands have been here a long time and we have made institutional changes,” Larmore said. “Make no mistake, I am very concerned about my people. I stay up at night worrying about that. They are my family and I want the workforce to be happy and appreciate what they have. It has been a very difficult 90 days, that’s going into [union] negotiations, some of the rumors out there, two negative items in the press, so yes I’m very concerned about the general providers who are not in the union and how they are doing. I can’t be very concerned about the union because frankly if I’m concerned about the union I’m not doing the job that I was hired to do.”

The support group has reached out to several Mayor and Council members over the last couple months, including Councilwoman Mary Knight who said she plans to attend an upcoming meeting of the group.

“I will go just as a sounding board, and I will explain that I will relay their concerns back to the city manager and that will be my purpose,” Knight said. “My purpose will not be to resolve anything, just to relay it to [City Manager] David [Recor].”

Refusing to further address the group’s general statements of concerns, such as the employees being treated as a “doormat” reference, Larmore wanted to focus on specific concerns the group had, singling out several of the wives’ bullet points, such as the issue of summer leave being denied for staff. Larmore said it’s a current city policy for staff to not take vacations during the busy summer season and the OCFD adopted the policy in December of 2011. That policy arose during the tight economic times that led to department staffing decreases. In the case of the career firefighter/paramedics, Larmore said seven positions had to be eliminated, representing approximately 20 percent of the career division.

“The basis was this is a resort and from Memorial Day to Labor Day it’s all hands on deck. You need everyone you have because staffing requirements go up,” Larmore said. “Going into calendar 2012, I issued a reminder to not plan on taking leave in compliance with the city’s policy manual from Memorial Day to Labor Day. We gave everybody notice last year and this year, and now all of a sudden it’s bad for morale that you can’t take off in the middle of the summer when your kids are out of school. When you were hired here, that was a priority here, as it is with many of the city departments. Now I’m the bad guy and being difficult, and I have a guy going to the city manager about it and his wife coming to you, despite the fact it’s a city policy and we made an exception last year but wouldn’t do it again this year. My priority is having guys on the road responding and providing service the public expects.”

OCFD Sees Recent Spike In Grievances

Larmore’s leadership discretion has come under fire in recent months over a recent promotion process that led to a grievance being filed arguing the process was not properly carried out.

Trevor Steedman, a long-time career firefighter/paramedic, was promoted to captain in December 2012, but a second promotion of a female lieutenant, Kathleen Hartley, to captain also took place. It was this second promotion that bothered many within the fire department, but the grievance filed was reviewed by Larmore and Recor and no wrongdoing was found.

While sources indicate Steedman was almost a certainty for the spot due to his seniority and experience, Hartley’s promotion surprised many of the rank and file. Although the wives took exception to the promotion for a variety of reasons, it was the process that irked them.

“Nobody knew there was a second position. There was no list as to who was in line for an acting captain position, even though they had not posted that there was this position in the first place,” one wife said. “The process is indicative of how the department is being run currently. There are so many questions and when they are expressed, people are being called liars and bashed.”

Larmore referred to the four-month promotion process as “detailed and fair”. He said the second promotion of Hartley was endorsed by city leadership and carried out as a result of high-ranking leaders within the department approaching retirement in the near future.

“Our command staff with the exception of one person can actually retire in less than three years, so my approach was to promote two. There was never any intention to mislead anybody. It was done purely in the spirit of succession planning because when we looked at the dollars it could be done within the existing budget,” Larmore said. “There was nothing deceitful here. It was very good succession planning in my mind, and the city manager and council approved it. I felt at the end of that process there were two people well suited and qualified in terms of succession planning to lead this department.”

A complaint was reportedly filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the Town of Ocean City over the promotion and the workforce’s alleged response that it was linked to inappropriate and unprofessional relations between certain personnel. The nature of that complaint is sealed, but the EEOC did confirm receiving the complaint last month.

While the status of that process is unclear at the moment, Miles & Stockbridge, a labor law firm, will be briefing the Mayor and Council in an upcoming closed session on the findings of “an internal inquiry” that relates to a “personnel-specific situation”, according to Recor. Sources indicate that report is linked to the EEOC complaint.

“We made an inquiry based on the allegations that were made, and they will be giving the council an update at an upcoming closed session. The inquiry is complete,” Recor said. “That’s about as much as I can say generally without going into specifics.”

Of that probe, Larmore said, “There is an internal investigation between the workforce. That’s over my head and it involves the workforce. I hope we get resolution to that sooner than later.”

More grievances involving recent decisions have also been filed, but the town of Ocean City rejected this publication’s Freedom of Information Act request last month to view all of the grievances. The city referred to them as “personnel records” that will be included in the employee’s individual file and would not be released. One such grievance not released involved a member of the staff approaching the city manager with a concern and subsequently being disciplined for violating the chain of command, according to Recor.

A grievance that was released by the city to this paper involving “watch duty” was filed by the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). The IAFF Local 4269 filed the “unit wide grievance” on Nov. 9, 2012 in response to changes to the watch duty policy instituted on Nov. 1, 2012 by Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Barton.

The policy changes were reactionary to an emergency call being missed as a result of firefighter/paramedics being asleep in an area where there reportedly is no alert. Numerous sources have confirmed the call was missed, although no tragic consequences occurred and a delay time of approximately six minutes reportedly occurred. The call incident along with other “unacceptably high response times”, words Barton used in a memo obtained by this paper, sparked a policy change.

That led to the union’s grievance, which sought the removal of two changes -- one that specifically stated where career personnel were not permitted to sleep and another mandating one member of the crew be awake and “shall perform “Watch Duty” between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. The grievance sought a work group to study and review current response policies to prevent future delays. The union felt the changes Barton instituted violated the 2010-2013 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the city and the IAFF and the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

Larmore rejected the grievance, saying in a letter to IAFF Local 4269 President Michael Maykrantz dated Nov. 22, 2012, “I believe the requirement of one person to remain awake and alert is reasonable.” Additionally, Larmore penned there is language in the SOP agreement that states the commanding officer has the prerogative to “consider the needs and duties of their shift before allowing personnel to occupy beds.” Recor confirmed he upheld Larmore’s rejection of the grievance.

Larmore said the policy that required at least one firefighter/paramedic to be awake at all times stayed in place until Jan. 17 when new alert systems were approved. Currently, all stations and staff are now alerted of each call through a system-wide alert and secondary pagers.

“They slept through two calls and that’s unacceptable. A mistake was made and the mistake needed to be corrected. I am the one who had to answer to the family that had the delayed call. That’s not a telephone call that I want to make it again. The Ocean City Fire Department, as a whole, regrets that we did not live up to our own standard, and that standard is obviously a timely response,” Larmore said. “’Watch duty’, meaning someone and it didn’t have to be the same person had to be awake at all times, was suspended Jan. 17 after the safeguards were put in place, including 20 additional pagers that were purchased. When it goes off, you are going to know it. Now, every single EMS call sends out a signal through these pagers. The compromise with the union was they can sleep, but they need to be ready to provide a timely response and I think these changes allow that and the public expects that.”

City Manager To Hold Private Meetings With Staff

Within the next month, as a result of the ongoing issues within the OCFD, Recor plans to meet with members of the department to hear their concerns. Recor said this morning no members of the command staff will be permitted to attend those focus group sessions.

“It actually emanated from the ongoing issues and I really want to hear from department members,” Recor said.

Last month, Recor met with members of the command staff, including the chief, the captains and lieutenants, to discuss issues the department was currently facing as well as other innocuous business matters.

“I wanted them to know that I’m going to listen to the concerns of our employees, and I committed that day to meet with each of the platoons minus management and to listen to their ideas, suggestions and concerns,” Recor said. “I want them to share their ideas, suggestions and concerns without fear of any kind of repercussions, and I want to listen. As city manager, I will be able to discern what is a bargaining unit issue and what is something that needs to be addressed at the management level. I think that resonated with a number of employees and leadership and they were very receptive to the idea.”

Recor requested the face-to-face time to hear the specific concerns and address them with a goal to improve the operation of the OCFD.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility as city manager to be responsive to concerns raised by the employees. I am trying to get to the bottom of things. To the extent that my management and oversight of this organization can make it a better place to work … I want to make that contribution. We all have minimum expectations, and I want the fire department just like every other department to be a well-managed department where the employees can come to work and do their job and feel safe and comfortable in a good working environment,” Recor said. “I’m all ears and am going to listen and want to know how we can do better and move in the right direction.”

Chief Believes Union Impacting Relations

During an interview on Monday, Larmore reported not a single grievance was filed with the city in the first four and a half years of his chief’s tenure, but there have been as many as five filed over the last five months. He suspects many of the grievances might have been a union ploy in advance of contract negotiations, which wrapped last month with both sides expected to sign the new accord this month.

“There are times when they have animosity of management instead of animosity with the council, which is who they negotiate with. There is going to be differences between union and management, that’s a reality,” Larmore said.

Larmore believes the recent uncertainty regarding union contract negotiations could be playing a part in the discord among the staff and families. He believes once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is officially inked some concerns will be relieved. The current contract expires June 30.

“They are senior people and they are simply not used to it. At the end of the day, most of the people who are positive and have a high morale they are unaffected. I don’t like what’s happening. I don’t like hearing this. We are making improvements,” the chief said. “When this contract gets signed, that’s going to take a lot of it away. They are going to be happy with the outcome, knowing there were not significant changes.”

The wives were unanimous in saying their concerns are not rooted in pay and benefits issues. Each admitted not being privy to union contract details, reporting instead the support group was formed as an outlet for spouses worried about their husbands going to work in an unhealthy environment.

“This has been smoldering ever since Larmore took over. It’s to the point now where it’s just a major disruption. Something needs to happen,” one wife said. “Many of the guys are like, ‘get me the hell out of here’. I can’t take it anymore. If we had lateral moves, many would have done it already. It’s always been a tradition for the kids to follow in the fire background, whether it’s as a volunteer or as a career. Now, no way anyone is going to allow their kids to come back here and work. Absolutely no parts of it … they see their fathers worried over getting fired and the stress has changed them. These are broken men.”

Another of the wives involved with the support group reiterated, “The formation of our group is not about pay and benefits. We are thankful they are employed, but we want to see changes for our families’ sake and others. There needs to be a return to respect for each other and that’s not presently there between the chief and our husbands.”

Larmore still believes the union is influencing relations between the command staff and the personnel, referring to the timing of the recent grievances compared to the previous four-plus years without any grievances filed.

“I don’t know that many organizations that have a union-management form of operation is going to have a cordial relationship. The employees are part of my team and part of my family, but I have a fiduciary relationship to the citizenry,” he said. “I have to provide that service as economically reasonable as possible. That flies into the face of any union. Therefore, it’s difficult for anyone to say we are always going to be on the same page.”

Controversy Not Impacting Public’s Safety

Despite their differences, Larmore and the support group agree on one key element -- the public should not be concerned about the safety amid the current “turmoil” within the OCFD.

“We absolutely feel there is absolutely no reason for the public to feel they are not being protected by these men and women. They are as professional as you get.  They are heroes to us, but they are human and we need to protect them…” a member of the support group said. “We need to provide them the support they deserve because they do not deserve what they are getting now.”

Those interested in joining the support group are urged to email fullyinvolvedstaff@gmail.com or write 37232 Lighthouse Road, Suite 167, Selbyville, Del. 19979.

Larmore encouraged the support group to bring their specific concerns to him.

“Get them to my level. Once they come here, if I don’t address them, then let’s go on record and address them,” Larmore said.

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