Long clash over firings taught costly lessons

By Times editorial
Published May 29, 2007

Clearwater city government took some hard knocks when a federal arbitrator ordered the reinstatement of two city paramedics fired for failing to respond to a 911 call. For weeks after the decision was handed down, city officials were still stinging with resentment over the decision, still feeling that the decision to fire the two men had been correct.

But lead medic Trevor Murray and paramedic Mike Jones have now returned to work, and based on the city's careful re-integration of the men back into the Fire Department, city officials have taken a deep breath and decided to abide by both the letter and the spirit of the arbitrator's decision.

Now, the city needs to apply these lessons learned to other disputes with firefighters and the local fire union. The city must figure out how to address inevitable disciplinary issues properly and legally so as to avoid vulnerability to such expensive losses in the future.

There were no winners in the Murray-Jones case. Jones and Murray, veteran paramedics, were fired two years ago after they sat in their rescue vehicle in the fire station rather than roll out to a call from a woman who said she had been raped. The woman frequently called 911 with unfounded claims of injury. The paramedics decided to wait until police arrived at the woman's home to determine if she really needed medical assistance.

Clearwater fire Chief Jamie Geer firmly believed the two men had made an unauthorized and potentially dangerous decision not to respond immediately. He felt their termination was warranted, and his decision was supported by Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne. Many could agree with Geer's position. After all, how could he have fire crews deciding on their own whether to respond to a 911 call? But many felt Geer went too far when he fired the two men, who had clean disciplinary records, rather than disciplining them.

After two years of hearings, negotiations, expense and disruption for both the paramedics and the city government, the arbitrator ordered the city to reinstate them and help them regain their county paramedic certification, which the county medical director revoked.

Though the medical director still refuses to reinstate the county certification, the city has brought the men back to work with back wages. Murray and Jones will be classified as firefighters, but will be paid the higher paramedic wage for up to a year while they try to get recertified by the county.

Jones, who returned to work Friday, praised the daylong transition the city developed to bring him back into the work force, calling it "a really smooth process." Murray was scheduled to start back to work today under the same process.

No matter how much city officials may have felt they were right in this case, they were found to be wrong in a valid hearing process. They now owe Murray and Jones the opportunity to pick up where they left off two years ago, as skilled and respected members of the department.

They also need to prove to the residents of Clearwater who pay their salary that they will deliver dedicated, professional service every day, in every instance.