A fire department decision to take a rescue out of service for training violated the department’s own policies and procedures and led to a labor dispute with the union.
In late 2021, the Ocoee Fire Department took a rescue unit out of service for an entire work day to enable firefighters to attend a training session. That decision violated the fire department’s own policies and procedures, which mandate “a minimum” of two operational units at all times, each staffed with at least one paramedic. This may have led to longer emergency response times and compromised civilian safety, the firefighters union president claims. The rescue unit was taken out of service on Oct. 19, 2021, so that firefighters could attend the training session with the Orange County Fire Rescue. The county oversees some aspects of the operations at fire stations across the county, but the decision to take out the rescue unit, without another one to fill its place, was made by the Ocoee Fire Department. This was the first time that Ocoee was left with only one rescue unit, rather than the required two, according to emails obtained by VoxPopuli. The union claimed the shortage of one rescue unit left the city unable to respond to emergencies in a timely manner, especially during high call volumes.
There is no evidence anyone’s life was put at risk on that particular day.
“An extended response time is the number one danger,” said Chris Atalski, president of the Ocoee Professional Firefighters Local 3623. “When we’re getting a rescue from Orange County, that means that they’re coming from outside of the city.” Even a one-minute reduction in response time by an emergency medical vehicle can cause an 8 percent change in survival, according to a Columbia University study A rescue unit is a type of emergency dispatch team coordinated by the Ocoee Fire Department. The unit has a dual function, taking fire-related calls and acting as an ambulance that transports patients to hospitals. The unit consists of two firefighters, with one of them required to be a certified paramedic. In Ocoee, two rescue units are legally mandated at all times, which is spelled out in the department’s policies and procedures. 5F.10.4 General says: “The Ocoee Fire Department will maintain a minimum of two transport capable transport units at all times … At least two transport capable units shall be staffed at all times with a minimum of one paramedic on each unit.” When call volume spikes, additional rescues called “peak rescue units” are often put into service. These units are typically staffed with firefighters working overtime to ensure that the department responds to all calls during high-volume periods. Even with the two required units and a peak rescue unit, the Ocoee Fire Department is frequently unable to keep up with the call volume, said Atalski. As a result, the department outsources calls to Orange County through a mutual-aid agreement. But outsourcing contributes to longer response times for units to arrive at the scene of emergencies, he added.
So, on Oct. 19, with just a single rescue unit operating, it is possible that the city would have been unable to respond to several calls that came in simultaneously, meaning it would have relied on the county for help, potentially delaying emergency response.
John Miller, who was the city’s fire chief at the time until his sudden retirement on April 1, admitted in an email exchange with the union that this was an issue. He wrote, “I agree that measures need to be taken to avoid this from happening again.” Atalski said Ocoee relies too much on the county. “We’re already abusing the mutual-aid agreement with the county, and the out-of-service rescue unit is only increasing the number of calls we get that need to be picked up by the city.”
In response to the shortage of the rescue unit in October, former Chief Miller told the firefighters union in an email days after the incident: “The best way to remedy this is to treat the Peak Rescue Unit as part of the Department’s minimum staffing.” Miller added that if the peak rescue unit could not be staffed by on-duty firefighters, the openings would be posted as overtime positions and the current hiring practices for staffing, including mandatory overtime would be utilized.” Miller’s response sparked a labor dispute. The union said this approach was a “unilateral change of agreement” that violated its collective bargaining agreement with the city. The union filed an official complaint against the fire department, and requested a collective bargaining session to negotiate “discipline, timelines, 'definition of a Peak Rescue Unit,' policy, lost income, compensation, accessibility, workload, safety and much more,” according to an Oct. 27 letter sent to former Chief Miller.
During its bargaining session the union was able to extract a commitment from the fire department that the situation will not repeat, but little more, according to Atalski.
He said Ocoee needs a mandatory third rescue unit. “There are times, every day, that both of our rescues are tied up on calls … sometimes we get four or five calls within a span of 30 minutes,” he said. He said the third unit could be funded from revenue the department would get by fielding additional calls. Each time rescue units respond to a call, they get more revenue from the city. When Orange County responds to Ocoee’s calls, the city effectively loses money that could be put toward a third rescue unit, he explained. “We're losing a million dollars a year,” said Atalski, “and with a million dollars in revenue, the city could very easily afford to put two more people and have that third rescue in service.” Tom Smothers, Ocoee’s acting fire chief, told VoxPopuli that he was not aware of the 2021 incident. However, he said: “We have an excellent relationship with our neighboring departments and have automatic aid agreements in place to ensure coverage in each department’s area during times when units are not available.