A bright national spotlight is focused upon the workplace behavior of First Responders. Each community, and its dedicated fire and police employees, knows to be alert and sensitive to the social reactions that flow from their conduct. Sometimes, unions and independent arbitrators throw a wrench into the machinery of exercising good judgment and requiring accountability essential to maintaining good order. A recent example recently arose in Tampa, Florida.
An unnamed firefighter in Tampa, who holds a paramedic certification, was disciplined in 2017 for making “unprofessional and racist remarks to [a patient] while she was riding in an ambulance.” At the time of that discipline, the firefighter was required to meet with a psychologist who determined that the firefighter had “characteristics consistent with psychosis.” The psychologist added that the unnamed firefighter needed better self-control, help with stress, and follow up treatment appointments. The firefighter failed to follow through.
In 2021, that same firefighter was teaching at the Law Enforcement Academy when he told a group of cadets before class, “get out of here, you fagots.” One of those to whom he spoke is openly gay. He and another cadet reported to authorities that they were offended by the remark. The firefighter answered the complaint that he was joking “in poor taste” with people toward whom he thought he had a rapport.
The incident might have stopped there. Instead, after being told not to return to the class while an investigation was ongoing, the firefighter “entered the classroom and delivered a five to six minute profanity-laced lecture.” He pointedly attacked the complainers as disrespectfully and hypersensitive. The City of Tampa ended his employment.
Dutifully, the International Association of Firefighters grieved his employment termination to binding arbitration. The arbitrator ruled that the unnamed firefighter was unfairly discharged, returning him to work with “make whole” remedy in wages and benefits. In reaching that conclusion the arbitrator relied upon: (1) only two of the four people who heard the first remark were offended by it; (2) It was not “clear and convincing” that the firefighter understood he was told not to go back to the class and subject students to a tirade; and (3) other employees had said insensitive things without being discharged.
One might think that if 50% of people who hear a crass remark are highly offended, that is enough to cause concern. And, one might think that a trained paramedic firefighter should not even have to be told not to return to the class and deliver a vulgar retaliatory diatribe. Finally, one might think that the 2017 incident was the firefighter’s chance, already taken, to make an unacceptable remark without being discharged. That was not how the arbitrator ruled.
The City of Tampa now has a firefighter on staff, by fiat of an arbitration decision, with the known potential to ignite future trouble. And, there is nothing that they can do about it. The case is International Association of Firefighters 754 and City of Tampa, 2022 BNA LA 489 (Williams, Arb. 2022).