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Worker blames pressure for error

Larry Wade, a firefighter and paramedic, fights for his job after giving an overdose of morphine.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2000


MADEIRA BEACH -- A longtime firefighter and paramedic is fighting to keep his job after making a series of medical response errors, including administering an overdose of morphine that could have cost a patient's life.

Larry Wade, a former lieutenant with the city's fire department who has worked there for 18 years, alleges that working conditions made it nearly impossible for him to succeed at his job.

"I feel really bad for Larry, and I feel really bad that this has all come down to this," said Rick Feinberg, president of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, the union representing Wade in the dispute. "But as far as I'm concerned, it's a lack of direction from the fire department administration."

The union partly blames Chief Brian Turini, already on probation following a consultant's report that criticized the department. After the county's medical director gave Wade 12 months to repair his paramedic skills, Turini shortened that time to three months -- a time limit the union believes set up Wade for failure.

Problems within the fire department, ranging from disorganization to a lack of leadership to low morale within the ranks, were outlined in a consultant's report released last month. That report also stated the city manager would be justified in firing Turini; instead, the city manager placed him on a one-year probation.

Turini wants to fire Wade, whose paramedic mishaps already have led the county medical director to revoke his ability to be a paramedic in Pinellas. Without Wade, Turini's department is even more short-handed, with only four people filling the six paramedic slots.

"The department is already understaffed for paramedics," Fire Chief Brian Turini wrote in a memo last week to City Manager Mike Bonfield. "Paramedic Wade's revocation places the department in an extreme hardship. Therefore, I must recommend Larry Wade's termination with the city of Madeira Beach."

The county's medical director, Robert B. Pettyjohn, said Tuesday that paramedics disciplined for sloppy work usually must endure remedial training. During that time, the morphine incident occurred.

Pettyjohn said he could recall perhaps three paramedics actually being fired for medical errors in his 25 years with the medical director's office.

Few details are available about Wade's mistakes as a paramedic because most of the information deals with individuals' medical reports, Pettyjohn said. But once trouble was spotted, Wade was given a list of specific duties that he must successfully complete to retain his certification in Pinellas.

"Our goal in the case against paramedic Larry Wade is not to remove him from practicing as a paramedic, but provide him the opportunity to improve his skills through a process that would protect the community," wrote Steven LeCroy, chairman of the peer review committee.

Wade was given a year to complete the list, but Turini asked that the timetable be shortened to 90 days. To meet all the qualifications in three months instead of 12, Wade began taking on extra work with the St. Petersburg Fire Department, in addition to his work in Madeira Beach.

"He said he was under a lot of stress because of having to hurry this thing up," Pettyjohn said. "Whether that contributed to his mistake, I don't know, but the mistake was made."

Wade has had other disciplinary action taken against him during his years in Madeira Beach. In 1994, he was demoted from his job as a lieutenant after firefighters working for him accused him of lacking leadership and decision-making skills. One female firefighter accused him of sexual harassment.

Former City Manager John Mulvihill made the decision to demote him and outlined the reasons in a letter dated April 18, 1994. "In all cases, your improper decisions created an unsafe environment for your subordinates, as well as having a negative impact on unit morale," Mulvihill wrote.

* * *

Wade was fired in 1982 from a job as a Pinellas Park firefighter and arson investigator. According to his personnel record there, he was fired for making inappropriate remarks to and about other fire department personnel and their wives. City Attorney Andrew Salzman led a pretermination meeting with Wade, city staff and union officials on Tuesday. He will transfer information he gleaned there to City Manager Mike Bonfield, who will decide whether to fire Wade. Bonfield is on vacation until July 10.

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