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Firefighter challenges discipline

He blames a problem with the tone volume, a loud fan and medication he had taken for not waking up in time to respond to an alarm.

A firefighter who was suspended without pay after he slept through an alarm for the second time says the discipline was unwarranted and violated his rights.

The complaint has triggered an investigation into possible problems of racism or religious intolerance in the Pinellas Park Fire Department.

Barac Wimberly's objections to the suspension are laid out in a grievance the International Association of Firefighters filed on his behalf with Pinellas Park officials.

Among other things, the union grievance concludes that "since firefighter Wimberly was sleeping, for all intent purposes unconscious, it is unreasonable to expect an unconscious person to respond to situations of which he is unaware or perform tasks while asleep.

"The grievance committee finds these rule violations unfounded and the inclusion of these violations look as though there is an effort to throw even the kitchen sink at firefighter Wimberly."

Wimberly's arguments failed to impress Pinellas Park fire Chief Ken Cramer, who decided Monday that the suspension was appropriate.

"There is a large degree of personal responsibility in this issue," Cramer wrote in an answer to the grievance. "By offering such a number of weak excuses regarding his performance, firefighter Wimberly is refusing all personal responsibility for making certain that he does what he is paid to do, get on the fire engine and go to the emergency."

Wimberly has five days to appeal Cramer's decision to City Manager Jerry Mudd. The firefighter could not be reached for comment.

The union's review is one of at least two investigations into the situation. The city's personnel department began its own investigation into the relations between Wimberly, who is black and a Jehovah's Witness, and other fire employees.

Cramer said the city is investigating even though Wimberly has not claimed he is the victim of discrimination. "They're trying to just get background on what's going on, basically to see if they've got a problem," Cramer said. "I don't think we do." Other black employees and other Jehovah's Witnesses in the department have had no problems, Cramer said.

It is unclear when the personnel investigation might be finished.

Wimberly, 27, a firefighter/emergency medical technician, has worked for the Pinellas Park department for four years. He received praise earlier this year for being part of a team that caught an arsonist at the scene of a brush fire.

He's also had his problems.

Wimberly has had two oral warnings on previous matters. In 1998, his supervisor told Wimberly, in effect, to be more of a team player. He also was reprimanded for being late to work. Both warnings were noted in his personnel file, but he was not punished.

Earlier this year, he received a written reprimand for sleeping through a fire alarm because he was wearing earplugs to drown out other firefighters' snoring.

Since then, he's received a written reprimand and a suspension for half of a 24-hour shift for leaving medical waste such as bandages and needles, a blood pressure cuff and other equipment behind after a medical call.

The latest sleeping incident happened around 11:30 p.m. on June 13.

Wimberly, who normally works out of Station 34, was at Station 33 filling in for an absent firefighter during that shift. All the firefighters were sleeping when the alarm sounded. The other firefighters woke up, hopped on the truck, waited a short time for him, then left without him.

They made no effort to wake him until after the call when the supervisor, Lt. James Dowdy, roused him and talked with him.

Dowdy did not recommend discipline but did report the matter. District Chief Art Winquist asked for memos from the crew members and Dowdy, and then suspended Wimberly for three days without pay. That cost Wimberly about $726 in salary, plus benefits. Wimberly earns $29,382 a year.

Wimberly, in the fire union grievance, found five problems with that punishment:

"Firefighter Wimberly was working in unfamiliar surroundings. His normal assignment was on (Engine) 34. The conditions at Station 33 were different, a loud fan was running, possibly drowning out the alarm tones."

Cramer dismissed that, saying, "If the level of noise from the fan in the dormitory is as loud as is stated, then how could firefighter Wimberly have been able to sleep at all? The remainder of the crew responded to the alarm, only firefighter Wimberly did not."

"Station 33 has had numerous problems with the encoder and amplifier that sounds the alarm tones and dispatch reports. The volume of the tones and dispatch has varied and sometimes did not work. Since the June 13 incident, the amplifier has been replaced. While there is no argument that the tones actually sounded, the volume of the tones may have been subdued enough that firefighter Wimberly was unable to discern the sound over the sound of the noisy fan. The fact that the other firefighters sleeping in the room awoke is evidence that they were more conditioned to working with the variable tone volume and the background noise."

Cramer also dismissed that: "The vague statement that "the tones may have been subdued' is nonsensical since the remainder of the crew responded."

Wimberly was on a prescription medication that has a side effect of drowsiness or unusual tiredness. "The possible side effects of the medication, added to the fluctuating volume of the alarm tones, and substantial background noise, most probably explains why firefighter Wimberly did not hear the alarm tones."

Cramer said a common side effect of prescription and over-the-counter drugs is drowsiness. He criticized Wimberly for not informing Dowdy that he was taking medication that could affect his performance. The fact that Wimberly had told the supervisor at his normal station was irrelevant, Cramer said.

"No other employees have been disciplined for sleeping through an alarm, or not responding to an alarm they did not hear. Since it is reasonable to assume that other employees have not responded to calls they were unaware of, it would seem that Lt. Dowdy's approach to the situation was normal practice. No discipline was recommended. Firefighter Wimberly's suspension appears to be a selective application of discipline."

Cramer said, "We have had no instances of other employees sleeping through an alarm in the 21 years of my employment at the city of Pinellas Park. The decision by Lt. Dowdy to assign no discipline was overruled."

Wimberly's previous warning came because he was wearing earplugs while sleeping. He has not repeated that since then. Because the facts are different, that warning is not sufficient notice that would allow suspension without pay for this sleeping incident.

Cramer: "My opinion differs from the grievance committee in that I believe that the prior incident is, in fact, related."