Firefighter exodus continues with stalled negotiations; county may reduce requirements for Fire Chief

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MCFR Lt. Drew Richardson

[Last updated on July 8, 2015, at 9:37 p.m. to include a statement from the county.]

Ocala, Florida  — Marion County firefighters are still waiting to hear back from county officials on their contract as the exodus of firefighters and paramedics continues.

Last week, a 10-year Firefighter Paramedic promoted to Lieutenant, a 6-year Firefighter Paramedic promoted to Driver Engineer, and a 2-year Firefighter Paramedic, all turned in their resignations.

One expressed his frustrations in his resignation letter, which was forwarded to county commissioners.

Lt. Drew Richardson had worked for Marion County Fire Rescue for 10 years. In total, he had 16 years of experience as a paramedic. This is due to the fact that he worked for the ambulance service before becoming a firefighter.

“This has been a tough decision and it is one I did not want to make. But, after waiting for years to have a future in this department to no avail, it is time to move on as hundreds of my brothers and sisters who have worked for Marion County have already done,” Richardson wrote in his resignation letter.

Over 200 firefighters and paramedics, nearly half of the workforce, have turned in resignation letters over the last four years.

Richardson wrote, “One year ago our fire chief asked us to ‘hold on things would get better.’ Instead, he retires with no sign of movement towards getting better.” He added, “What seems to be forgotten is that jobs are readily available where firefighters and paramedics do not have to be reduced to begging to be able to take care of their families and eventually retire with dignity.”

But, low pay was not the only reason why Richardson decided to move on.

He says the fire department has such a low staff that firefighters and paramedics are being forced to stay on the clock. Richardson, who has three children and a wife who works, was told to have someone in his family call out sick from their job to take care of the kids so that he could be forced to stay on the job.

“They tell us we cannot leave work for another 24 hours with limited notice, in my case, as with many others, less than ten minutes before shift change. And this does not occur because there is a natural disaster, or some sort of emergency. It’s only because they cannot retain employees,” Richardson wrote.

Richardson wrote, “I have children and a wife with a job that helps to pay our bills. My other family members have jobs. The administrative staff tells me by e-mail to ‘have my wife or family call out sick from their jobs’ so that I can be forced to stay on the clock. They care so little about my family, that our supervisors want them to jeopardize their careers just so the commissioners can keep pay low.”

Marion County Public Information Manager Barbra Hernández said, “This is rarely the case. Shift commanders try to avoid assigning mandatory overtime, but must resort to it when there are not enough crew members available to cover the required positions.” She added,”In the particular case cited, this former staff member was notified of his mandatory overtime once the night before and once at least 40 minutes ahead of time. Upon his refusal, other crew members were required to fill the mandatory overtime.”

“Mandatory and excessive overtime is a problem here, as well as the low pay,” Ryan O’Reilly, spokesman for the Professional Firefighters of Marion County said. “Our fear is that the county commissioners will just try and dump cash on this problem, rather than trying to rectify it for the long term.”

“These guys need to have a step plan returned to them so that these skilled medics and firefighters know they have a future here,” O’Reilly added. “We are still hopeful that these commissioners will do the right thing and correct this for the long term.”

On average, there are around 240 hours of extra overtime a day for MCFR, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

In addition to staffing problems, on Tuesday commissioners are scheduled to review the qualifications for the position of Fire Chief. The proposal is to separate the position from the Assistant County Administrator. However, the proposal also eliminates the need for the Fire Chief to be a firefighter.

The new job description states that an applicant only has to be either a firefighter, EMT, or a paramedic. This is a departure from every single fire department near Marion County, where the top spot requires certificates in both firefighting and emergency medicine.

If passed, Marion County will have the lowest standards for hiring a fire chief in the region, while every county bordering Marion County, including the cities of Ocala, Leesburg, and Micanopy, require dual certification and advanced degrees.

Current Fire Chief Stuart McElhaney will retire on July 31, after having served 21 years in the top spot. Deputy Chief Paul Nevels was set to be handed the spot until the Ocala Post uncovered the fact that he did not have credentials in emergency medicine, and little advanced training in firefighting.  Additionally, Nevels did not have any higher education.

In closing, Richardson wrote, “I wish there was a future here. This is the greatest job in the world with the greatest group of co-workers I could have ever hoped to work alongside of. However, there is no movement to fixing these issues for the long term.”

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  • larry1952

    This problem must be corrected without delay. Every citizen of Marion County could be in danger because of this impasse. We need to remember this problem along with MANY others when election time comes around. Time for sweeping changes in the County Commission.

    • Yeah right…

      Those tools in office don’t care about the citizens, they just have to sit on there hands until next election and they’re set for life per Florida legislature… Meanwhile I bust my ass for 20 years to retire only to have to pay for my own insurance… Politicians are the real drain on society and they feed on the sick and poor with promises of lower taxes and people buy it because it means more money in their pocket. Not knowing they’re hurting themselves in the long run because of the services that are losing funding for while costs continue to rise… Wake up sheep! Quit jumping over the fence and daydreaming of better, greener grass on the other side of the fence. The country was founded on dirty hardworking callused hands!!

  • Randy Futch

    The county commissioners want a fall guy so bad that they are going to lower your requirements for the position to put in who they want to take the fall. If they do this that means that the firefighters who are hired would be required to have a higher education than the guy or gal hiring them. The funny part is the county commissioners don’t see a problem with that.

  • Justin Brown

    It’s funny as how everyone get’s so outraged with this issue, but the same problems are within the Marion County Sheriffs Office and while everyone sat back and said the same things two years ago election time has come and gone and the same good old boy county commission still hold the same seats.

  • Angie Sweeney

    Forced to retire, Denied the option to get donated leave. Doctor would not let me come back yet and I was out of hours to take off and get a paycheck had to take early retirement so I could get my IRA account just so I could survive.
    I
    started giving my time to this County in 1984 as a volunteer at Anthony Fire
    Department. Was hired on as full time in 1987. I was originally hired as EMT/FF
    but have noticed the FF on my initial employment paperwork has been deleted by
    whiteout. Even though I fought fires for 5 years after being hired I was never
    allowed to be placed on high risk retirement. Spending the last 23 years
    investigating fires which is as hazardous as fighting the fires and still
    denied for high risk. EMT was put on high risk but by this time EMT was taken
    off my job description, which I am still a certified EMT, and again denied for
    high risk. Got my Law Enforcement certification in 2005 because the County was
    going to us this in conjunction with my fire investigation, again this never
    happened again denied for high risk.

    For the past 23 years I have been on call 24/7 and had to pay to bring home a
    response vehicle because I was never certified as a fire fighter. Really, being
    made to pay for the privilege of always being on call.

    During the bad year we had with Hurricanes I worked EOC and put in around 107
    hours in two weeks never got a thanks or any extra pay for this. Every time
    someone was needed I was there.

    Was K-9 handler for 9 years I refused one call due to having the flu and all I
    got was criticized because I refuse to take a call.

    Never got a pat on the back for the hours I have spent at fire scenes or the
    times I ran out to a fire to relieve the engine crews because it was going to
    take a long time for the State to respond just so they could get back to duty
    status, or the 20+ hours at a time I spent at large fire scenes such as the
    Florida Feed and Seed fire, the tire shop fore on E 40 just to name a few. I
    never missed a fire fatality because I wanted to be there for the family and
    the deceased and hoped I could make some difference.

    Recently I had a hand in stopping two serial arsonist due to my years of
    service and being able to remember names. If I did not come up with the names
    there is no telling how many more fires there would have been in these areas.

    I was asked to attend and get my Haz-Mat Tech certification I which I did. I
    was told they wanted me to be the science officer. I did what I was asked and
    was never put on the special teams pay.

    When we were asked to take over the DEP contract from the Health Department I
    was placed in charge of this contract and turned a failing inspection program
    around into a respected program. I even took it upon myself to obtain a BS in
    Environmental Science the help with the program.

    I saved the County thousands of dollars when there was a fuel leak at station
    12. DEP was going to make the County do a full blown environmental assessment.
    I was able to work with them and avoid this costly testing.

    When “unnamed” was removed I took over plan review. I took this process and
    started working with the public instead of the John way of “Because I said
    so” attitude. We now have the respect of just about every architect,
    designer and contractor that does business in Marion County. Believe me this
    was no easy task.

    I started doing QA on fire reports and for the first time the County started
    receiving accolades from the State regarding Fire House reporting.

    I represented Marion County Fire as the State Chapter Director of the Building
    Official’s Association of Florida. I had that much respect from other code
    officials in the area they elected me as the Chapters reprehensive to this
    organization. I also made Building Official of the Year as a fire official that
    is unheard of.

    We now have a good working relationship with the Marion County School Board,
    which was another huge undertaking after John Lake. It took quite a while to
    get their trust and respect, but we got it.

    I have been injured multiple times on fire scenes including blowing out my
    discs back in the early 90’s. This was never reported due to back in those
    times if you reported any injury you more than likely would not be able to
    continue working, or we were lead to believe this therefor many injuries were
    never reported due to wanting to keep a job.

    I have been suffering with pain everyday but still coming to work and giving
    the County everything I have. I have endured 2 back surgeries and have permanent
    nerve damage and as the years go on it is getting harder and harder for me to
    function without the pain medications that I cannot take due to being on call
    24/7 and was told by the clinic I cannot take the medication within 8 hours of
    working.

    I should have been able to retire after 25 years with full benefits but here I
    am 28 years later and will be looking at a huge $1,000 a month for everything I
    have given.

    As much as I loved working for the people of Marion County I feel that the
    employees are considered second class citizens and the administrative groups
    only look out for people on the “good ol boys” list.

    I have always been very proud of my work and feel having to leave under these
    conditions just shows how little the County cares about the employees. If this
    is all 28 years of the service I have given is worth it just means my job did
    not mean anything either.

    The only thing hard about this is leaving the people that over the years
    have become more than friends. Work was all I lived for and all I had. Even
    when I was off sick or on vacation I still answered emails and my phone helping
    in any way I could. Every day since I can remember I gave the County hours,
    coming in at 0600 when I was not scheduled to come in until 0730. 90% of the
    time not taking lunch and eating at my desk getting work done. I always
    thought I was doing something good for the County.

    I really did give the County everything I had and I poured my entire body and
    soul into my job.

    • larry1952

      Thank you for your years of public service. It is indeed wrong that you are not taken better care of as you enter your retirement years. God bless you,(sir or ma’am).

    • Jon

      Mike Clelland is a retired battalion chief and current attorney. I would call him and discuss your screwing.

  • Barry1953

    Someone should verify the article regarding Richardson, I might be wrong, but I believe that he did not resign, but was terminated.

    • Yeah right…

      He resigned. The letter he wrote was his two weeks notice… He sent it to the entire fire service dept… It’s verified…