Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, October 25, 2012
Firing gets a second look

An embattled former Monroe County Fire Rescue lieutenant, also the current firefighters union president, is fighting for his job back, but will have to wait until January for a decision from a special arbitrator.

International Association of Firefighters 3909 union President John Hamburger claims he was fired in December because he blew the whistle on an Aug. 10, 2010, incident in which a Trauma Star flight medic allegedly took medical supplies from the Marathon helicopter hangar to treat a volunteer firefighter with a non-life-threatening malady, said Fire Rescue Chief Jim Callahan.

Monroe County counters that Hamburger was fired after repeated incidents of insubordinate behavior and that his leadership role in the union had nothing to do with Callahan's decision to fire him, said Assistant County Attorney Cynthia Hall.

A closed hearing Tuesday in Key West went until nearly 8 p.m. as Hamburger made the case that he should be reinstated. An arbitrator will decide in January whether Hamburger, who lives in Miami, should have his job back, both sides said on Wednesday.

Hamburger contends that the disagreement partly centers on flight medic Lt. Andrea Sutherland's alleged removal of some medical supplies to treat non-life-threatening injuries to another emergency responder while both were off-duty, according to emails provided to The Citizen by Monroe County.

"Too many department employees have witnessed you denigrating my leadership as [then] vice president for the union and its members," Hamburger wrote to battalion chiefs as well as Callahan in a Sept. 25, 2011, email. "Particularly, the way I handled the investigation and allegations that were made against Sutherland.

"The investigation [that] Sutherland [was] alleged of stealing medical supplies from Trauma Star and you as her battalion chief eventually covering up those allegations."

Hamburger closes the email by saying it would be "the final official communication" between he and his battalion chief.

The missing medical supplies incident was handled by Monroe County Medical Director Dr. Sandra Schwemmer, who writes all protocols and conducts all quality assurance programs with paramedics, thus Callahan was not made aware of it at the time, Hall said.

In addition, the incident was first reported by another emergency responder who is no longer employed by the county, Hall said.

"At least two battalion chiefs called the medical director and Dr. Schwemmer informed department leaders that she would handle it as a quality assurance issue," Hall said.

"Apparently, six months later, Mr. Hamburger mentioned the incident to Chief Callahan, who in turn investigated it and was told it had been handled by the medical director."

Hamburger's "blistering Sept. 25, 2011" email culminated his firing, said Hall, who provided disciplinary documents Wednesday outlining the county's case.

Other incidents include one on July 12, 2009, in which he yelled at a supervisor on the phone; on July 26, 2009, he allegedly failed to properly file paperwork; and Aug. 16, 2011, he was stationed at the Stock Island fire station, where it took the crew six minutes to respond to a call, according to Hamburger's personnel files.

Callahan on Wednesday called Sutherland and the other firefighter both good employees.

"I can tell you that this was nowhere near the high-level incident that he's (Hamburger) is making it out to be," Hall said. Callahan said Hamburger was fired for insubordination and any allegation that he was fired for any other reason is "absolutely not true."

"I was dismissed for an email I sent on Sept. 25, 2011," Hamburger said Wednesday. "I still stand behind that email."

Hamburger added he would gladly return to work if the arbitrator ruled in his favor.

"I believe we are all professionals and I don't harbor any ill feelings," Hamburger said. "I did what I thought I had to do. Sometimes you have disagreements with people, but we all want what is best for Monroe County."

Union, county contract

Meanwhile, Hall and other county officials want to sit down with the firefighters union as soon as possible, after its members rejected two weeks ago the commissioner-proposed three-year contract submitted in July, Hall said.

The union did not ratify the county contract on Oct. 11 by way of a 28-8 vote, Hall said. One of those ballots was left blank, meaning 37 union members out of 112 voted, Hall said.

The union's old contract expired Sept. 30, 2011.

Union lawyer Mark Floyd did not return two phone messages seeking comment.

Commissioners shot down a proposed contract that would have given county firefighters raises.

Annual salaries without benefits or overtime for firefighter/EMTs are $35,445 for starters, $42,678 at midlevel, $53,452 for 11 or more years of service, between $39,484 and $59,543 for lieutenants and between $55,990 and $84,317 for battalion chiefs.

"The membership wasn't really pleased with what was imposed," Hamburger said, adding that he wasn't sure what a fair outcome would be.

Hall wants to hammer out a new contract soon, as county department heads have to have their budgets drafted by February.

"Or else there's no reasonable possibility of any discussion about salary increases for the following year," Hall said.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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