(ran West, South editions)
One council member is furious and wonders if he's being discriminated against after the city manager overruled a police decision allowing him to participate in rigorous SWAT training.
City Manager Jerry Mudd denies he discriminated against council member Chuck Williams. Mudd said the decision was based on many complicated factors.
The uproar, however, may have opened the door for Pinellas Park paramedics to take the training so they can be part of the police SWAT team. That would mean SWAT officers would have a paramedic present for quick help if any are injured when they are called out.
"The more I think about it, the madder I get," Williams said. "I'm not happy with this decision."
"He's not my father'
Williams is a certified emergency medical technician who occasionally rides with paramedics from the Pinellas Park Fire Department to keep his skills current.
He had applied for the SWAT training after discovering that many fire departments have paramedics and EMTs trained as SWAT officers. Those people go out whenever the SWAT team from their government's police department answers a call. That way, SWAT officers, who have a high risk of injury, have someone there who can care for them if they are hurt.
Pinellas Park has no such program.
Instead, an entire four-man fire engine crew is usually called out whenever the SWAT team is working. That means those four people sit there until the SWAT team resolves the situation, which can last hours. That leaves fewer firefighters and paramedics on call for the rest of Pinellas Park during those hours.
If Pinellas Park had one paramedic assigned to the SWAT team, only that one person would be called out, leaving other firefighters and paramedics available for the rest of the city.
Williams said he wanted to pave the way for other Pinellas Park paramedics and EMTs who wanted to help the police. He also wanted to see what SWAT officers go through in training.
Williams received permission from police Chief David Milchan, fire Chief Ken Cramer and police Sgt. Kevin Riley, who is in charge of the Police Department's SWAT training. The council member was working out and learning new skills, such as rappeling, to prepare himself for the one-day tryout and the weeklong training this month.
Then Tuesday, Mudd called Williams with the news. Mudd had decided Williams should not participate in the training. That enraged Williams.
They should never have said he could do it if they meant to withdraw the invitation, Williams said.
But the issue that really irked Williams was the reference made to his age.
Williams said one of the things he was told was, "Well, you know, this is a young man's game," when Mudd announced the decision to him.
"I took offense at that," said the 57-year-old Williams. If the decision was based on age, he said, that's discrimination.
Mudd denied that he was discriminating against Williams based on age. He said his decision was based on many complicated factors.
One of those was the rigor of the training.
"The information I received from the Police Department is that those who try out for the SWAT team are generally young individuals, primarily in their 20s who are in very good condition," Mudd said.
Even then, Mudd said, some people do not make it through the one-day tryout. The tryout, he said, is like Marine boot camp crammed into one day.
Among other things, SWAT applicants have to run a mile and a half, then begin a shooting exercise. They have to scale 10-foot walls, cross a water-filled canal on a suspended rope and escape from a building where two police officers are doing everything they can to keep them from escaping.
A paramedic is on duty during the training, Mudd said, and it's not unusual for people to collapse from exhaustion or dehydration.
"It's an all-day physically and mentally rigorous test," Mudd said.
That was enough for Mudd to wonder if Williams should go through the tryout. When Chief Milchan and two of his officers, Lt. John Green, 39, and Capt. Robert Hempel, 43, said they could not pass the tryout, Mudd became more certain Williams should not take part.
But Williams said Mudd is overstepping his bounds.
"I really don't need Jerry to tell me I'm too old to do things. He's not my father," Williams said. "If I didn't think I could handle myself, I wouldn't be going into it. I'm not stupid."
Milchan, who turns 61 this month, agreed that the training is tough, and he likely would not pass even though he considers himself fit and lifts weights regularly.
"I think the majority of the population couldn't pass it. It's very tough. (It's) meant to be. We always eliminate certain people when we have a SWAT tryout," the chief said. "I do not believe that I could pass the SWAT tryout. . . . That's not saying there's not some 61-year-old guy out there who could."
So what's the problem with Williams trying, even if he eventually failed?
"If he wants to come out for the SWAT tryout, he can," Milchan said. "We would not want him as a regular member of a SWAT team because we want someone totally dedicated in his job doing this thing day in and day out."
Paramedics are preferred
That is another reason for Mudd's decision.
Williams has only an EMT certification. Mudd said he feels the first firefighter who goes through the SWAT training should be a paramedic, who has more knowledge and experience.
Even if Williams was a paramedic, he does not do that full time, Mudd said. The SWAT paramedic has to be on call at all hours, and Williams, with another full-time job as an auditor, cannot do that.
"When I fully considered the issue, I began to feel there was merit in having a medical person present," Mudd said. "But as I thought through this, I felt that this person should be a full-time paramedic, not an EMT, not a part-time employee. It would be done best by someone who is a full-time paramedic."
Williams said he never intended to be a member of the SWAT team. He only wanted to help the paramedics who get called out on the truck now and start the program in Pinellas Park.
Another factor against Williams is the fact that he's a council member.
"I have a concern with placing an elected official in that highly hazardous position with the SWAT team," Mudd said. "It's already very hazardous duty."
SWAT officers might be so concerned about what would happen to them if a council member was shot, hurt or killed that they might neglect their own safety or jobs to protect Williams, the city manager said.
Still, Williams may have accomplished his goal.
Mudd said he will sit down this week with Milchan and fire Chief Cramer to discuss training for paramedics who want to work with the SWAT team.
It's unclear exactly why Pinellas Park has been slow to establish a program that other cities, such as St. Petersburg, already have.
"We have invited them in the past, and they have declined to get involved," police Chief Milchan said of the Fire Department.
Part of the reason could be money.
Having a paramedic participate in training requires overtime pay. Other costs are also associated with the training. It's unclear who should pay for those costs, the Police Department or the Fire Department.
Milchan said his department has offered to pay for the bulk of the equipment, such as a bulletproof vest and gas mask, that would be needed for the training. Having the Police Department pay $1,200 would leave only $600 in equipment costs for the Fire Department.
Cramer, the fire chief, was out of town late last week and could not be reached for comment.
Mudd said he thinks those things can be worked out and, barring some good reason, "my strong suspicion is that we will be inviting a paramedic to sign up for the SWAT team tryout very soon."
That could be as early as the next training, which starts at the end of this month.
"It makes me feel good, but they still haven't said who pays for them," Williams said. "If that's what the result was, then I'm thrilled to death because that's all I wanted to do was get a program started for our paramedics and help the police."