Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday July 23rd 2019

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Escambia’s Unmentionables

By Jeremy Morrison

Escambia County has a problem. The problem’s exact parameters or depth remain unclear because as Escambia County Commissioner Jeff Bergosh said, “We’re dancing around it because we have to.”

Escambia’s problem pertains to its Public Safety Department. It appears there are issues within its Emergency Medical Services as well as discontent within the ranks of its firefighters and EMTs. While the county’s medical director has outlined EMS concerns to the state, Escambia’s firefighter and EMT unions have taken no-confidence votes in Public Safety Director Mike Weaver, who resigned in short order. This was about a week after the resignation of Escambia County Fire Rescue Chief Rusty Nail as well as, separately, Human Resource Director Eric Kleinert.

In the no-confidence letter to the commissioners, Nick Gradia, president of the Escambia County Professional Firefighters, wrote, “Last year, the fire department underwent a massive investigation into allegations of harassment and poor culture among its employees during which Director Weaver testified that he had no knowledge of any negative behavior or actions conducted by staff. Public Safety’s chain of command simply does not allow this lack of knowledge.”

He wrote of Weaver, “He has repeatedly demonstrated behavior which indicates a priority of self-preservation rather than the best interests of the community he serves.”

County officials have been pretty quiet on all the controversy, citing an ongoing state investigation and the need to assess the concerns and issues being raised fully. However, the commissioners did delve into an around-the-edges discussion during a recent board meeting.

“Obviously, it’s the elephant in the room throughout Escambia County. I suspect y’all’s phones have been blowing up quite a bit with all of our first responders just as mine has,” said Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill.

He continued, “The things that are being brought to my attention, I am absolutely shocked that they are being kept from us. We’re not going to be able to talk about it today, but I’ll tell you, everybody else in Escambia County is.”

But the commissioners did talk about the county’s problems some. They complained about not knowing a lot of the details themselves and about constantly learning new, more troubling information—about public safety as well as human resources.

“The more I hear, the more I understand that this is not a two-week-old problem; it’s more systemic,” said Commission Chairman Lumon May, who recounted being recently caught unawares as he exited a restaurant and found himself facing a local television news crew questioning him about a letter the county’s health director wrote to the Florida Department of Health.

According to WEAR 3, the letter reportedly addressed concerns Medical Director Dr. Rayme Edler had about the county’s EMS department. She apparently cited multiple issues ranging from the falsification of certifications and credentials to EMTs lying about medications given in the field.

This letter is reportedly exempt from public records law. Officially, Escambia County isn’t discussing the matter, except in the form of a statement pointing out that it was the county who first recognized issues within EMS and turned matters over to the state.

“We are unable to comment specifically about ongoing investigations,” said county spokesperson Joy Tsubooka in the statement. “However, we can tell you that our own processes through our medical director alerted county leadership to possible training discrepancies and other areas of concern within EMS in 2018.”

Escambia apparently began an internal investigation in January, encountered challenges producing “documentable evidence to bring forward for review” and then turned the issue over to the state with a cover letter from the medical director outlining concerns.

“The assertions and resulting investigation are not tied to any case or external complaint but the county’s due diligence to ensure that our staff is appropriately trained, certified and following best practices,” Tsubooka noted in the statement. “It is very important to note that the county has self-reported these areas of concerns for an outside agency to review and take any needed action.”

The EMS professionals of the Escambia County EMS Department, members of International Association of EMTs and Paramedics (IAEP) Local 325, announced it would continue to work with Escambia County management in the wake of the recent allegations regarding potentially falsified certifications among some employees of the EMS Department.

“Our members are first and foremost dedicated to providing quality and professional emergency services in Escambia County to the communities in which they serve,” said IAEP National Director Philip Petit. “We fully support Medical Director Dr. Edler’s efforts to review the certifications to make sure that the department is in compliance with state requirements and the law.”

Local 325 stated it believes further investigation would show that the allegations were limited to a small portion of EMS department employees and did not reflect the professionalism and dedication of Escambia County’s EMS professionals as a whole.

“It’s crucial that the public has confidence in their first responders, and we understand the importance of transparency throughout this process,” said Petit. “This situation appears to be limited to a small number of employees and does not represent the majority of the highly-skilled professionals of the EMS department who take their jobs and the responsibilities to the county very seriously.”

National Director Petit added, “The IAEP and Local 325 first and foremost want the Escambia County community to know that the men and women responding to their calls for help are highly skilled, highly trained and dedicated to providing the best service possible in every situation.”

As Inweekly continued to pursue details, the Florida Department of Health offered little additional information.

“I cannot say whether or not the department receives a complaint or plans to take action against any practitioner until 10 days after probable cause is found,” said FDOH Deputy Press Secretary Brad Dalton, going on to explain that if no wrong-doing is found, the state will never confirm the investigation or comment on the matter.

While county commissioners expressed a desire to let the state investigation play out, they also signaled they were prepared to deal with what they clearly saw as problems being brought to their attention from numerous directions.

“I’m sick of saying we’re going to wait on the state’s response,” Chairman May said.

Interim County Administrator Amy Lovoy told commissioners that Assistant County Administrator Matt Coughlin would be spending a few days a week at the department, taking on the role of acting director, and an independent ombudsman—former Public Safety Director Janice Kilgore—would be brought in to assess the situation within the department.

Kilgore served as public safety director during George Touart’s tenure as county administrator. She recently was the vice president of Greater Pensacola Operations at Navy Federal Credit Union.

At the commission meeting last Thursday, Lovoy defended outgoing Public Safety Director Weaver and Escambia County Fire Rescue Chief Nail and talked about how she’d recently visited with members of the public safety department to reassure them they had her confidence. She cautioned commissioners about jumping to conclusions before investigations were completed.

“Just because you’re accused doesn’t mean you’re guilty, even in this hyper, 21st-century culture,” she said. “These people need a chance to explain.”

On Monday, April 15, Lovoy turned in a letter of resignation citing a contentious work environment. She wrote, “I find it difficult to continue performing my duties in a place where allegations of any variety can be made, and reputations ruined before an individual is allowed to answer for the charges against them.”