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CKF&R suspends union official for three days
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2819 vice president Ronny Smith has been notified by the Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue District that he will be suspended for three days for sharing information that the district considers to be confidential.
Smith confirmed the suspension Monday but said the actual days he will be off without pay have yet to be scheduled.
"I've been notified that for my actions to educate the residents of Chico on the risks of their station's closures, I will be suspended for three days," Smith said Monday. "I am being punished and financially impacted simply for providing facts to The Reporter, to Kitsap Fire Watch and to the residents of Chico."
CKF&R Fire Chief Scott Weninger said that the district was taking steps to protect patient confidentiality.
"We did have a breach of patient confidentiality and the district has received notice of potential legal action because of that," Weninger said. "It's really unfortunate and the district is taking steps to see that such incidents don't happen in the future."
The suspension centers on information that Smith provided to Kitsap Fire Watch and the Central Kitsap Reporter in the form of a letter to the editor.The information outlined two situations when minutes would have a made a difference in the outcome of emergency medical responses. His letter pointed out that if the Chico Station had been closed, the outcomes for those patients could have been different. Smith's action came after CKF&R's decision to reduce minimum staffing from 19 to 17, which has resulted in more than a dozen closures of the Chico Station on a shift-to-shift basis since January. That could result in longer response times in that area and hence, possible different outcomes for residents, according to Smith and the union.
After the letter was published and the information was posted on Kitsap Fire Watch, a website dedicated to fire district information county-wide, Smith was notified that he was being considered for possible termination.
Smith said the district considered the fact that he shared the date, time and street location of the calls with the general public as a violation of the district's policy and federal Health Insurance Patient Privacy Act (HIPPA). Although no names of patients were given out, the incidents were described as a "respiratory failure" and a "cardiac episode," and gave the age of the patients involved.
Following more than a month during which Smith and his union representation were called to meet with Chief Weninger, other district administrators and the district's lawyer numerous times, Smith was told he would be keeping his job but serve a three-day suspension.
"Usually these suspensions are served in consecutive days," Smith said, "but they are telling me that my days will be served when it won't result in any overtime or in a closure at (the Chico station). I find that kind of ironic."
During its budgeting process for 2014, CKF&R board members voted to reduce the number of firefighter/EMTs on each shift from 19 to 17. That was done to reduce the amount of overtime the district had. Currently the district has 75 firefighter/EMTs and has a maximum of 25 on each shift. Depending on sick days, vacation days and training, the number can vary from 17 to 25.
When there are not enough available firefighters/EMTs to meet the minimum 17 for a shift, instead of paying overtime, the Chico station is not staffed with career firefighters. Volunteers may man the house then if available.
When that happens, calls that come in from the Chico response area are answered by the closest available fire station. In the cases that Smith mentioned in his letter, response times would have increased by up to five minutes.
When the board made the decision to reduce the minimums, Smith asked them to hold off and allow residents of Chico to weigh in on the matter. When that didn't happen, the union took measures to let residents know about the situation through the use of Kitsap Fire Watch and letters to the editor.Smith said he plans to continue to serve the public, the union, and "do my job."
He said the IAFF Local 2819 also is pursuing other avenues such as filing an unfair labor practices complaint with the State's Public Employees Relations Commission.
Weninger said he could not be specific about details of what was released by Smith that was in violation of district policy and referred all other questions regarding the potential lawsuit to the district's attorney Ken Bagwell who did not return phone calls on Monday.