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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