September 23, 2019

Dismissal of paramedic in Warren under review

WARREN – A town ambulance department paramedic is still dazed by his firing in late October, and along with town officials, is trying to figure out what happened.

Rodney Gibbs, 37, was informed through an Oct. 30 letter from Warren Rescue Director Polly Wood that his “services are no longer needed by Warren Rescue” and to return all his equipment and gear.

According to Gibbs, the letter hit him pretty hard, taking him by surprise.

“I’m upset there wasn’t any prior discussions or complaints made about this,” Gibbs said. “There was nothing in my record.”

Gibbs also has worked as a full-time firefighter and paramedic for the city of Rockland for the past two years, and fills in as an on-call paramedic for Thomaston, as needed.

What developed from his termination letter was a series of correspondence to and from town officials trying to find out the reason for his dismissal. In the interim, the town informed Gibbs that Wood “missed a step” in the firing process. The town should have held a hearing to discuss the complaints against Gibbs and the reasons for letting him go, before terminating him.

The town also realized it needed a deputy ambulance director to serve on a hearing board to address Gibbs’ dismissal.

Upon receiving the letter from Wood, Gibbs contacted town manager Grant Watmough to inquire about the reason for his termination. Watmough was unable to explain, Gibbs said.

When contacted by the Bangor Daily News Wednesday, Watmough acknowledged he did not know, at that time, the details of Gibbs’ dismissal and had signed Wood’s letter because he was “supporting a department head.”

On Nov. 22, a special meeting was held during which Fire Chief Edward Grinnell was appointed acting deputy ambulance director. Then a disciplinary hearing was scheduled for Dec. 22 regarding Gibbs’ situation, which he requested to be open to the public. According to Watmough, notice of the meeting, which took place at 1 p.m., was posted at the town office.

In between the November and December meetings, it appears that complaints about Gibbs were solicited from unnamed fellow and area ambulance personnel. A list of alleged complaints was also prepared, which cited Gibbs’ lack of communication; refusal to schedule himself on call; attended less than 75 percent of ambulance meetings; use of abusive language toward another member, failure to treat other members with respect, conduct unbecoming that might compromise the reputation, character and or its ambulance members; and will not take administrative direction.

Wood did not immediately return a call to the newspaper.

An undated letter from Wood makes reference to Gibbs supposedly telling her that a paramedic should be in charge at an accident scene.

Most complaints centered around Gibbs apparently trying to take control at the scene of accidents. One letter complained of him cursing. The majority of the complaints were dated this month, while a couple had no date.

The accusations referred to improprieties that took place as far back as June 18, 1999. In that oldest complaint, signed Dec. 8, 2000, by Daniel Moran, assistant director of Waldoboro Ambulance Department, he cites that as soon as Gibbs arrived at a particular accident scene, he was upset that no one was caring for some of the patients and that “his demeanor was abrupt and argumentative.”

In a file prepared by Gibbs and his lawyer, Frederick Newcomb III of Rockland, there were more letters of support than complaints. The letters came from area emergency personnel directors, state and county law enforcement officers and a Penobscot Bay Medical Center nursing supervisor.

Anne Miller, the PBMC nursing supervisor, who holds positions in several EMS service organizations, including being director of St. George Ambulance, wrote highly of Gibbs.

Miller wrote: “In my experience, Rodney has always conducted himself in a most professional manner … I feel that Rodney is a tremendous asset to any Service receiving his assistance. I would be highly disappointed to see Warren lose the services of such a highly trained and qualified paramedic. The detriment that that would cause to the citizens of Warren would be inexcusable.”

In an interview Wednesday, Gibbs acknowledged that he has arrived at various accidents and that one of his initial actions is to find out who is in charge of the scene, how many victims are involved and the extent of injuries. There have been times when he has asked those questions and received no response, he said, so he has assumed no one was in control. So, he would take control, he said.

As far as demeanor or appearing abrupt, he said, “When you go to an accident scene, you may not have the time to be congenial.”

After the disciplinary hearing Friday, there was no ruling, Gibbs said, noting the board wanted time to digest the information.

According to Watmough, no date has yet been set for another meeting on the matter.

Gibbs’ lawyer filed a letter with the disciplinary hearing committee Dec. 22, objecting to the composition of the committee. He also argued that the town manager is the only person who can dismiss an ambulance service member because “however minimal they may be paid,” all ambulance personnel are town employees. Newcomb also stated that Gibbs must be terminated for just cause.

“A finding of sufficient ’cause’ for dismissal would typically indicate that the fired employee would be unfit to hold a job in the emergency services anywhere,” Newcomb wrote.

“Our attorney does not feel he is an employee,” Watmough said Wednesday. “He’s a volunteer – not an employee – is our position. If they got paid what they’re worth, we could consider them employees.”

According to Michael Starn, of Maine Municipal Association’s legal services division, in towns where the ambulance service is a department of the town and is supported by town funds, paid on-call ambulance personnel are employees. Warren’s ambulance service is a department of the town, Watmough said, and is funded by the town, as well as with user fees.

In his objection to the makeup of the disciplinary committee, Newcomb pointed out that Wood was a complainant and therefore should not sit on the committee. However, she was replaced by her son, Robert Wood, he noted, to which his client also entered an objection. Wood subsequently stepped down from the committee.

Newcomb, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, argued each reason given for Gibbs’ removal, including pointing out that records show that other ambulance workers also have failed to schedule themselves on the call roster or to attend 75 percent of meetings. He also noted that there were no letters of discipline in Gibbs’ file.

On the point of not accepting administrative direction, Newcomb stated, “Mr. Gibbs and Mrs. Wood do not always see eye to eye. This is unfortunate, but it may be the inevitable result of having a subordinate who is more highly qualified than the nominal superior. By state protocol, Mr. Gibbs, as a paramedic, has control over patient care in the field. Given the nature of the service’s mission, which is to provide care for patients, this puts Mr. Gibbs in charge in the field. This is a difficult issue for the service to deal with, but it cannot be grounds for discipline.”

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