Updating Oak Bluffs selectmen on the ongoing negotiations between the town and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), town administrator Robert Whritenour described a “clear philosophical break” between the town and the union bargaining unit.
“I think we are definitely going to need the help of the Labor Relations Board to resolve this issue,” he said.
Détente between the two sides became more complicated on Nov. 29, when Fire Chief John Rose, citing “neglect of duty and lack of good judgment,” suspended firefighter/paramedic Chris Flanders for two weeks without pay.
In response, union attorneys filed a charge of prohibited practice with the Department of Labor Relations (DLR) against the town on Dec. 1.
“The basis of the charge is that the employer never notified or bargained with the union about the imposition of any discipline,” union attorney James Hykel told The Times. “Our position is that notification is required until at least the first contract is reached with the union.”
The charge comes on the heels of the Nov. 29 ruling from the DLR, which found probable cause for 11 alleged unfair labor practices against the town in response to a 16-count complaint filed by the union in August. In one count, the DLR found probable cause that Mr. Flanders was denied his right to union representation by Chief Rose in a disciplinary hearing on August 15.
In his Nov. 29 suspension letter, Chief Rose wrote there were longstanding issues with Mr. Flanders. “I am increasingly concerned with your continuous lack of good judgment, as well as your commitment to the job,” he wrote. “I question your fitness and overall suitability for the position you hold. If I thought more training would help, I would certainly try to arrange it.”
Three incidents led to the two-week suspension.
Chief Rose alleged that Mr. Flanders erred when he called for mutual aid to cover him at the hospital, where he was waiting to handle an incoming MedFlight transport, to respond to a 911 call. The chief maintained an Oak Bluffs crew was already at the hospital that could have covered, and mutual aid was unnecessary.
“You didn’t think fast on your feet in that situation, and made no real effort to find out who was where,” Chief Rose wrote.
The chief also alleged Mr. Flanders has demonstrated “a recurring pattern of carelessness,” most recently when he left a laptop computer at a Boston hospital, and also when he inadvertently took keys to an ambulance when he was on an off-Island transfer, “leaving it and its crew stranded at the ER unable to respond to an emergency.”
Chief Rose said he hoped the suspension would change Mr. Flanders’ “vindictiveness and attitude.” He also offered to help arrange personal or family counseling for Mr. Flanders.
Mr. Flanders began as a volunteer with the department in 2012, and has been a full-time firefighter/paramedic for the past two years. He is a member of the union bargaining committee.
He was advised by Mr. Hykel not to speak publicly about the suspension.
“I think it’s telling that two people who were active in unionizing and spoke out have faced disciplinary action since then,” Mr. Hykel said. “Anybody who’s talked to the press has suffered for it.”
In July, after eight of the 10 full-time Oak Bluffs firefighter/paramedics were sworn into IAFF Local 5137, former firefighter/EMT Kevin Kilduff and Mr. Flanders went on the record with The Times about capricious discipline and flagging morale at Oak Bluffs Fire Department, which fueled the impetus for unionizing.
In a July 26 interview with The Times, Mr. Whritenour, stating his strong support for Chief Rose, said Mr. Kilduff and Mr. Flanders were “the worst paramedics I’ve ever seen.”
Prior to his resignation from the department in October, Mr. Kilduff was secretary for IAFF Local 5137.
One of the 11 counts for which the DLR found probable cause in its Nov. 29 ruling was an allegation of retaliation against Mr. Kilduff when he returned from administrative leave, after completing an employee assistance program (EAP) this summer. Participation in the EAP was part of a “last chance agreement” between Chief Rose and Mr. Kilduff. When he returned from the EAP, Mr. Kilduff was designated for “light duty” by a town-appointed psychiatrist. Chief Rose said there was no “light duty” in the department. The union stated that the town again failed to bargain in good faith about the matter.
“My impression is that the chief is a very temperamental person,” Mr. Hykel said. “Whether it’s because of the articles that have been published or the victories we’ve gotten at the DLR, or when we’ve called him to testify at the DLR, he’s never had a good reaction to those events.”
On Wednesday, Chief Rose again denied that the disciplinary actions against Mr. Flanders and Mr. Kilduff were a form of retaliation for their union involvement.
“I am still responsible for the quality of the product this department delivers,” he said. “The facts are the facts. I didn’t suspend people on one or two accounts.”
He also denied that he stated at an August 7 officers’ meeting that the IAFF would “never set foot in the department” — one of the 11 counts to be weighed at the upcoming DLR hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.
Chief Rose sent The Times copies of emails from six department members who were at that meeting, which stated for the record that the chief said nothing derogatory about the IAFF.
The minutes from the meeting neither confirm nor refute the allegation.
Lt. Mike Desrosiers, treasurer for IAFF Local 5137 and member of the union bargaining committee, believes Mr. Flanders is being unjustly punished. Lt. Desrosiers is currently on “injured on duty” leave, but said he’s been in contact with a number of people about the allegations.
He told The Times Mr. Flanders acted correctly when he called for mutual aid for the MedFlight transport.
“While Chris was at the hospital waiting for a MedFlight, he got a call about an 81-year-old woman who fell, with possible injuries,” he said. “Chris called the [communications center] and asked for mutual aid, which is exactly what he’s supposed to do. Edgartown had an ambulance already at the hospital, and they covered the MedFlight, and Chris did the 911 call. It’s not Chris’ job to be a shift commander and to know where all the other people are at all times.”
In addition, Lt. Desrosiers said, Mr. Flanders was following the exact protocol Chief Rose had stated in an email to the department on Nov. 4, 2016 — “Just some clarification on MedFlights and 911’s, if you have received a call for a MedFlight but have not made contact with the patient or the MedFlight crew and a 911 call comes in of a high priority in nature you are to divert from the MedFlight, take the 911 call and send mutual aid to cover the MedFlight.”
Speaking to The Times on Wednesday, Chief Rose said the email was for a situation when the MedFlight crew was the only crew available for the town of Oak Bluffs. He also said the 911 call Mr. Flanders responded to did not involve serious injuries.
“There was a fully staffed ambulance that drove by him on the helipad,” he said. “He knew there was an ambulance crew there, they had just driven by him, so he should not have left that MedFlight. If you have a baby choking in our community, and you know the closest ambulance is coming from Edgartown or Tisbury, and you haven’t made contact with the MedFlight yet, go save that baby’s life. But don’t do that when there’s another ambulance sitting in the barn an eighth of a mile away.”
Lt. Desrosiers said since the incident took place after 8 pm, it would be logical Mr. Flanders assume the other crews were off-duty.
“I have a time card from one of the individuals that said they were off-duty that charged me 15 minutes of overtime,” Chief Rose said. “That’s in their writing.”
Regarding the misplaced computer, Mr. Desrosiers said Mr. Flanders was going through decontamination protocol after transporting a patient with possible tuberculosis to a Boston hospital, and was unaware another member of the ambulance crew had left it at a nurses’ station.
Chief Rose maintains that since Mr. Flanders was the paramedic on the crew, he was primarily responsible for the computer. “That computer has confidential information,” he said. “We could have gotten a $50,000 fine from HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) if that computer was tampered with.”
Lt. Desrosiers said the keys that Mr. Flanders inadvertently took off-Island were put in his jacket pocket, unbeknownst to him, while he was writing a report at the hospital.
“We never take the keys out of the ambulance,” Lt. Desrosiers said. “There’s a spare set at the station; nobody was stranded.”
Chief Rose told The Times on Wednesday he hadn’t heard that version of events.
“I don’t even know how to comment on that,” he said, adding that he is the only person who can access the spare keys at the station. “I had to leave my Thanksgiving dinner to get the spare keys. The bottom line is Chris had just come off a suspension, and he should have been on his ‘A’ game, and he wasn’t.”
There is an additional wrinkle in Mr. Flanders’ suspension.
According to town bylaw, no department head can suspend an employee without pay for more than five days without a personnel board hearing.
Mr. Flanders had no hearing, which the union contends was a clear violation of town bylaw.
Town labor attorney Jack Collins told The Times that the bylaw doesn’t apply to unionized employees. “The personnel bylaw only governs people who are not members of a bargaining unit,” he said. “Now they’re covered by Massachusetts General Law, which is the ‘Strong Chief’ law, which says he can hire and fire and do whatever he wants. He has absolute control.”
Mr. Hykel did not agree.
“The way I interpret the law is the firefighters/paramedics have voted to unionize, which means until the parties agree on a collective bargaining agreement, status quo remains in effect, meaning all the conditions and terms of employment that were in place when they voted to unionize are in effect until there is an agreement reached to the contrary,” he said. “They need to afford him that hearing unless there’s a really good reason not to.”