TAMPA — The Hillsborough County firefighters union is accusing county leaders of skipping steps during an investigation in their haste to fire four paramedics who failed to take the vital signs of a possible stroke victim who later died.
Derrik Ryan, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2294, said it's clear County Administrator Mike Merrill intends to fire the four paramedics. Ryan said they were not interviewed in person before they were placed on administrative leave ahead of a disciplinary hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
The county typically conducts a fact-finding exercise that would include recorded interviews with all parties before deciding if a disciplinary hearing was warranted, Ryan said. The paramedics, who were asked to submit written statements about the July 4 call, would not have known what accusations they faced, he added.
Merrill suspended the four July 20 after reviewing a county internal investigation about how paramedics responded to a call from the mother of Crystle Galloway, who was found passed out and drooling in her home.
Paramedics, who were told the 30-year-old woman had given birth by Cesarean section six days earlier, carried Galloway down some stairs but never examined her. She was taken to the hospital by her mother and died five days later.
The investigation began after Galloway's mother, Nicole Black, complained that paramedics and Hillsborough County deputies told her that her daughter couldn't afford a $600 ambulance ride to a hospital that was just three blocks away.
"It's so funny that the county administrator would take this mother's side without interviewing anybody," Ryan said. "We're pretty upset about that."
Hillsborough officials dispute that any disciplinary processes were violated.
"The employees were afforded an opportunity to present their account of the incident that took place on July 4 in writing," said Liana Lopez, the county's chief communications administrator. "These accounts were considered prior to any decision to proceed with a pre-disciplinary hearing."
The union is still discussing the case with its attorney but is likely to defend the paramedics, Ryan said. He doesn't believe that they tried to persuade Galloway or her mother to avoid the expense of an ambulance.
"We're not in the business of talking people out of going to the hospital," he said.
But Ryan acknowledged that paramedics may have erred by taking the word of deputies already on the scene, who told them the mother just needed help to get her daughter loaded up in her car for the ride to the hospital.
"That's what we did wrong – we bought into that narrative," Ryan said. "I certainly don't see that as a firing offense."
The four suspended employees are Lt. John "Mike" Morris, 36, who has worked with the department six years; fire medic Justin Sweeney, 36, a five-year department employee; fire medic Andrew J. Martin, 28, a five-year department employee; and acting Lt. Cortney Barton, 38, a nine-year department employee.
Checking vital signs is required even for incidents in which paramedics are only asked to lift someone, according to the fire department's standing orders and protocol. Additionally, the county investigation found that paramedics failed to record the patient's details. Instead, the call was logged using a code meaning "Non-transport/no patient found."
Ryan said that was because the mother sped away before paramedics could get any patient details.
The dispute comes as the county and the union are struggling to agree on a new contract.
Ryan said pay and benefits are the sticking points. A previous deal that would have would have required random drug testing of county firefighters and paramedics was overwhelmingly rejected by union members in March.
Bargaining talks are scheduled to resume Thursday.
"Right now, it doesn't look like this will be over anytime soon," Ryan said.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.