BROOKSVILLE — The city of Brooksville wrongfully fired its Fire Department's first female driver, engineer and captain last year, an arbitrator has ruled.
Hillary Sanford, who took issue with the city's actions and contacted news outlets and used social media to tell her story, should be reinstated and be made whole for the year she was gone, the ruling concludes.
After sitting through two days of testimony and reviewing a pile of documents, arbitrator Douglas Coleman determined that the firing was "clearly excessive.''
Sanford, 32, was a familiar face in Brooksville, where she served as the Fire Department's liaison for a number of community outreach programs. She argued that she had followed proper protocol, and she enlisted the aid of the Brooksville Professional Firefighters. But her appeal was turned down by then-City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha.
The union took her case to arbitration several months ago.
One year ago, Brooksville Fire Chief David Freda terminated Sanford, who had worked with the department for more than 11 years, for violating a policy he had just put in place. In a memo, he outlined when city employees were allowed to obtain a refusal of treatment from a potential patient — a policy that violated the rules of the department's medical director, Dr. Michael LoGuidice.
LoGuidice had warned Freda several times that the responsibility of obtaining refusals should rest with the basic life support personnel from Brooksville, not with Hernando County Fire Rescue personnel, who are certified to provide advanced life support.
During arbitration, the city argued that Sanford had been "grossly insubordinate" by failing to follow the rules set by the fire chief. But LoGuidice, who also testified, said he saw no problem with what Sanford did.
In its statement to the arbitrator, the union argued that Freda's memo was in conflict with LoGuidice's protocol because it would require the county's more highly trained paramedics to stay at the scene to obtain a refusal from someone who didn't want medical attention rather than having city emergency medical technicians take care of that paperwork, freeing up paramedics to handle calls of a more serious nature.
The union also argued that Sanford was an exemplary employee and that Freda's new rule was not a formal administrative order but an informational memo.
In his conclusion, the arbitrator stated that, while the city's witnesses said they followed progressive discipline in Sanford's case, "the city did not follow the progressive discipline procedure and chose termination to a long-term employee with a sterling employment record with citations and recommendations for her service.''
He went on to state that "the termination of Ms. Sanford does not meet what a reasonable person would consider justice or fair dealing''
Joe Keefer, who heads the Brooksville Professional Firefighters, said he was glad to see the outcome.
"It's been a long year. I was ecstatic that she finally got the true judgment she deserved in this,'' Keefer said.
He said he is in negotiations with the city to determine the actual settlement for Sanford. The arbitrator called for her to be back on the job by April 15.
Acting City Manager Bill Geiger said any comment from the city would have to come through City Council action.
"Obviously, I was happy. I was sad. All kinds of emotions,'' Sanford said of the moment when she learned of the arbitrator's decision. "It was years worth of work history, blood sweat and tears to better myself.''
Sanford also said she hoped she could be an example for others who might be reluctant to take a stand.
"I hope it gives someone the courage to fight the good fight,'' she said, "and stand up for what you believe in.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.