The Fire This Time

Since Jacksonville Beach firefighters Lance Sparrow and Shawn O’Shell were elected the president and vice-president of their local union last January, the pair say they’ve been harassed by the fire chief, yelled at by superiors, unfairly disciplined, given poor ratings on annual performance reviews and been denied raises.

Though Florida labor law and the state’s Constitution protect the rights of public employees to unionize, the 40-year-old Sparrow and 36-year-old O’Shell say their work representing IAFF Local 2622 has provoked a visceral and unfair response. The workplace has become so hostile, Sparrow has begun to question if he wants to remain a firefighter. “I live for the moment [when] I’ll be able to walk away [from the job],” he tells Folio Weekly after recounting the conflicts he’s faced in the past year. “I feel like I don’t want to be a part of this.”

According to Sparrow and O’Shell, problems began shortly after they started negotiating a new contract with the city of Jacksonville Beach in February 2011. City negotiators wanted to eliminate step raises, which reward longevity through percentage-based wage increases, and only give flat annual bonuses. They also wanted to reduce the amount firefighters are paid to work on holidays and reduce the city’s contribution to firefighters’ health insurance.

Sparrow and O’Shell responded by suggesting that Jacksonville Beach consider merging its fire department with the city of Jacksonville, which already provides fire and paramedic service to nearby Atlantic and Neptune beaches, as well as emergency transport and backup services to Jacksonville Beach. The men say the idea was to find cost savings but still protect firefighters’ jobs and opportunities. “We were trying to meet the city halfway,” O’Shell says. Jacksonville Beach officials said that if the union membership approved the cuts, they’d look into a possible merger. It wasn’t much of a compromise, but Sparrow and O’Shell agreed to take the proposal back to union members and let them vote on it. O’Shell says the majority of the members were in support of it.

It wasn’t well-received by the brass, however. According to Sparrow, Jacksonville Beach Fire Chief Gary Frazier and the department’s shift captains, who aren’t part of the union, took the idea of merging services with Jacksonville as a personal affront.

“You’d have thought I walked in and stabbed everybody in the heart,” says Sparrow.

The men claim the department’s captains began cracking down on both them and their fellow employees, suddenly enforcing rules they never had, and writing up firefighters for breaking them. The other 20 or so union members in the department got he message loud and clear — the top brass opposed the merger and the membership rejected the contract. “It was voted down by members based on their fear of harassment,” says O’Shell. “I had guys coming up to me saying that they are going after the guys who vote for this. They were saying they’re not putting their neck on the line or them to make up bogus stuff on them.”

Both O’Shell and Sparrow say the attacks became personal. O’Shell was disciplined for refusing to obey a direct order in an instance he believes was a setup. After weeks of trying to get Frazier’s permission to use a fire truck for a Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraiser, he says Chief Frazier emailed him the day before the event and gave permission. However, O’Shell says, Chief Frazier also emailed the department’s captains and told them that he’d rescinded his permission. After the fire truck was already at the fundraiser, a captain on duty told O’Shell to return it to the fire station immediately. Thinking there was a mistake, O’Shell went in search of Chief Frazier’s email instead of returning the truck, and was cited for disobeying a direct order. It was O’Shell’s first reprimand in the six years he’s been with the department.

Sparrow says he, too, was disciplined for a questionable reason. He received a coaching memo that he says cost him his expected step raise, for failing to secure and lock a box of prescriptions that contained controlled substances. That’s a serious infraction, but Sparrow says the punishment came two weeks after he had last handled the box, and after at least 10 other paramedics had signed off on it in the interim. Chief Frazier warned in Sparrow’s annual review that he should not let his “passion” overcome his “strong work ethic” — what Sparrow says is coded language for his union involvement. Sparrow points out that he graduated at the top of his paramedic class and had an exemplary career and excellent evaluations until he’d been elected union president.

Sparrow and O’Shell met with city Human Resources Director Karen Nelson to complain about retaliation for their union activities. Jax Beach responded by hiring Jacksonville attorney Michael Bittner to investigate, but the firefighters believe his role is more to insulate the city from a possible lawsuit than truly vet their complaints. Nelson says otherwise. “The union brought their concerns to us, and we take them very seriously.” Bittner’s report, scheduled to be completed on Jan. 23, was not available as of Jan. 24.

For his part, Chief Frazier declined comment. “I don’t really know much about it,” he said, with a frustrated exhalation. “They’re in [union] negotiation so I don’t think I can talk about anything.” City Manager George Forbes did not return a telephone message for comment.

O’Shell and Sparrow have hired an attorney to represent the union in an unfair labor practices claim, but pursuing that claim will be costly and, O’Shell admits, it might even break a small union like theirs.

“Eventually, we’ll go broke, and have no money to defend ourselves.”

The city of Jacksonville Beach has declared an impasse in the labor negotiations, and O’Shell and Sparrow say they can’t negotiate a contract when they’ll be retaliated against for doing so. “It makes you feel like you should just sign anything,” says O’Shell, “so you can go back to work and not think about things like this.”

Susan Cooper E

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