Life and death decisions come with the territory for Hillsborough County's firefighter-paramedics. They will never receive all the thanks they deserve for coming to the aid of people in their communities during the most trying of times, answering an average of some 36 fire-rescue calls each and every day.
The department numbers more than 1,000 employees. Some will make mistakes. With lives on the line when they do, it is vital that mistakes are fully investigated, people are held accountable, remedies are established.
It appears that mistakes may have been made in two emergency calls during the last seven months — one on March 28 that remains under investigation, one in July involving a patient death and settled with disciplinary action against four department employees.
Hillsborough County authorities got the bottom of the patient death and meted out what appears to be the appropriate discipline, firing a lieutenant, demoting a paramedic and issuing three 30-day suspensions without pay.
A woman had called 911 after she found her daughter unresponsive and drooling, six days after she gave birth by Caesarean section. The call went out to paramedics as a possible mini-stroke. The interactions at the daughter's Temple Terrace apartment involving paramedics, sheriff's deputies and the two women were the subject of a 10-week investigation, but in the end, the mother drove her daughter away.
The investigative record shows that during their time at scene, the paramedics failed to follow potentially life-saving procedures that they're trained to conduct — spending the minute or two required to take a patient's vital signs and having the patient sign a form acknowledging she's refusing treatment.
The woman later died. Whether inaction by the paramedics is the reason can't be known. But during investigative interviews, the lieutenant in charge placed responsibility on the mother and on a dispatching system he doesn't trust while insisting he can tell what a patient needs through a visual assessment.
Unfortunately, the union representing the other paramedics has taken up this clear attempt at diverting responsibility and elevated it to a call for the Hillsborough County Commission to fire County Administrator Mike Merrill. The union introduced further diversions by charging that due process wasn't followed — the county, in fact, went beyond its requirements — and by citing complaints the mother had lodged against first responders in another city, as if this disqualifies her from getting help here in an emergency.
The County Commission, wisely, has signaled that it recognizes a smoke screen when it sees one and that it backs the moves by its administrators to hold employees accountable for their failures.
The heightened tension over these unfortunate mistakes comes against the backdrop of continuing negotiations over a new contract between Hillsborough County and Firefighters Local 2294. It's a puzzling development considering that the two parties have reached agreement on two of three department work groups and should be close to presenting the contract to a vote of the rank of file.
The tensions also come amid the context of other moves by the county to hold fire-rescue employees accountable by requiring random drug testing and by acting quickly to remove four commanders who manipulated their time cards.
When the union pulls out all the stops to defend actions that are indefensible, it does no service to the vast majority of its members who do their jobs and follow best emergency-medical practices. And when it charges in a letter to commissioners, as it did last week, that Merrill's actions threaten "a lasting negative impact on our operations," it resorts to irresponsible exaggeration.
In fact, the county's actions serve to ensure that standards will be set and met with the safety of the public in mind.
That's a goal all sides should be able to agree on.