Rumors swirl after EMS firing

Staff writers

Monday’s seemingly abrupt firing of Marion County’s ambulance director created both a storm of protest and an uneasy calm of official no-comments Tuesday.

While all three county commissioners refused to explain their reason for dismissing longtime EMT and former Marion City Council member Steve Smith, Smith’s supporters were quick to condemn the commissioners.

Mike Connell, who has worked with Smith as part of the Hospital District No. 1 board, railed against the decision.

“In a county that cries in need for good people doing good work, you don’t let them go,” Connell said.

In a flurry of social media postings and in-person conversations, angry citizens suggested all manner of potential policy disputes between the commissioners and Smith — a notion that was at least tacitly supported by Smith’s own comments in an on-the-record interview Tuesday.

“We have a general disagreement with the direction of Marion County EMS,” he said. “If that’s what they need to do, that’s fine. I’ll step aside as long as they do something to change it and make it better.

“They have a tough job. I won’t always agree with them. We had a difference of opinion this time.”

Smith refused to discuss specifics of the “disagreement,” the existence of which was further supported by Commissioner Randy Dallke’s use of similar phrases in saying Tuesday: “We thought we needed to go in a different direction.”

If Smith’s firing was related to a disagreement over policy, however, it would have been illegal to discuss the matter in the closed-door executive session the commission conducted with him immediately before they voted to fire him.

While also refusing to discuss details, Commissioner Dan Holub categorically denied Tuesday that any policy issues were involved.

Holub reaffirmed that what the commissioners discussed behind closed doors was an issue involving protection of the privacy of the individuals being discussed.

“We don’t hide policy discussions in executive sessions,” he said. “We discuss personnel matters, not policy. And we don’t lie about this.”

Uncorroborated statements by a county EMT who requested anonymity also indicated the discussion might have been of a clearly personal nature, justifying the type of closed-door session the commissioners conducted.

Some of the concerns the EMT mentioned related to job performance. Others related to personal relationships. The newspaper has chosen not to repeat the allegations because they came on condition of anonymity and, despite repeated attempts, no other EMT was willing to confirm or dispute them on the record. As one put it, she wanted to “remain neutral.”

Among the potential items involved in any disagreement with commissioners may have been the nature of the county’s largely volunteer EMT force.

Except for the director, most county EMTs work other jobs. They are paid $2 an hour for being on call and $25 per call, with slight additions for longer calls. Smith has long been an advocate of the county hiring at least a core of full-time EMTs.

“Some of them volunteer 500 hours a month at $2 an hour,” Smith said. “We’re all just burned out.”

Another issue may have been a special advanced EMT class that Smith has been conducting in hope of expanding the number of EMTs available to supply a higher level of treatment during emergency transports to out-of-county hospitals.

While Smith asserted this was not a specific item of discussion, he did say the course had proved more difficult to implement than anticipated.

“The curriculum wasn’t very good, and the pass rate was like 23 percent for the state for this curriculum,” Smith said. “It’s a very hard class. We started this class last August and were supposed to be finished in May, but we were still going in June.”

Smith acknowledged that he might have “bit off more than I could chew” with the class, the future of which is in doubt with his firing.

“There’s a lot of stuff that happened in the last year that just didn’t go the way I wished it would have,” he said.

Aware of numerous rumors circulating about how Smith and the commissioners might have disagreed, Holub told the Marion County Record:

“There’s one, two, three, four, five different theories out there, and by the time your paper comes out, there’ll be seven or eight more. They’re all hooey.”

Smith was fired after a series of closed-door sessions involving personnel matters. He refused to state on the record afterward whether he had received any warnings or ultimatums from the commissioners, who likewise refused to discuss background of Monday’s confrontation.

After relieving him of his duties, effective 40 minutes later, commissioners did offer to give Smith, who routinely drove a county-supplied vehicle, a ride home after his firing. He declined, however, saying his wife would pick him up. A sheriff’s deputy was then ordered by the commission to escort Smith to clean out his office.

Publicly, reaction to the dismissal was resoundingly supportive of Smith and his years of service both as director and as an EMT.

Even the lone EMT who criticized his recent job performance stressed his excellence as a medical technician and his devotion to patients in his care during ambulance runs.

Smith plans to continue as an EMT for at least a month.

“I’m on the schedule for 450 hours this month,” he said. “I’ll be doing those hours right up until the time I get another position. I’ll always be here for the people of Marion, until we move on.”

Former ambulance director JoAnn Knak has been tabbed by commissioners to serve as interim director.

Knak would not comment on the situation Tuesday, saying her interim appointment would not be official until next Monday.

 

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