Lauderdale, Florida Fire Chief, Union Are At Odds Over Low-Key Medical Director

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Dr. Harry Wayne Lee has worked for 33 years in emergency medicine and was once named the state's top EMS medical director. Now the man responsible for making sure paramedics from six Broward County cities are saving lives on the street is caught in a battle between Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue's union and its chief.

The union sent a letter last month asking Fire Chief Otis Latin not to extend Lee's contract as the department's medical director when it expires Nov. 7. Firefighters say Lee's training and involvement with paramedics have been insufficient.

The complaint has dogged Lee at Coral Springs Fire-Rescue Department, as well.

The letter from Fort Lauderdale's fire union comes several weeks after members issued a no-confidence vote against Latin, who on Sept. 12 fired four firefighter-paramedics over their involvement in the Raymond Sterling case. In April, Sterling ran from police during a traffic stop and was pepper-sprayed when he resisted them. He died in police custody after being checked out by medics.

The Medical Examiner's Office ruled that Sterling died because of his asthma, physical exertion from the chase and struggle, his sickle-cell trait, and the pepper spraying.

Union President Ian Kemp said the lack of hands-on training under Lee's leadership is partly to blame for Sterling's death. He cites the chief's refusal to get rid of Lee as one of the top reasons for the no-confidence vote.

"He's not a hands-on medical director," Kemp said. "The majority of people don't even know what he looks like."

Lee and Latin dismiss the union's charges as retaliation over the firings. Latin said he asked for a list of complaints, including the accusation about Sterling's death, but the union has failed to provide it.

"These are all state-certified paramedics that have been ... tested in our system, that have every bit of the knowledge that you need to handle the Sterling case," Lee said. "I have a commitment to these young men and women who are in these very dangerous jobs."As medical director, Lee is responsible for providing a medical license for paramedics to work under, setting service protocols, training and reviewing their performance in the field. State law requires fire departments that provide EMS service to have a medical director, and the director has to be accessible to paramedics at all times.

He earns a combined income of almost $192,000 from the six Broward cities he serves part time as medical director -- Fort Lauderdale, Sunrise, Plantation, Coral Springs, Margate and Oakland Park.

Fort Lauderdale pays him the most, $50,000. His contract with the city can be extended twice for one year before the city has to solicit bids for the medical director job. Latin said city commissioners approved funding for an extension in July and that he plans to have the deal finalized within the next few days.

"Just to say they don't like someone isn't enough," said Latin, who insists Lee has done a great job and that he will approve a contract extension despite the union's complaints. "It's a situation where the important thing that you need to do is make sure that he is available. And he is."

But Kemp said medics and union representatives have told Latin over the past five years that Lee does not personally conduct training, which Kemp blames partly on Fort Lauderdale's contract with Lee. The contract, signed in 2000 when Lee renewed his deal with the city, has no specific time requirements for ride-alongs or training with paramedics.

union pushes training

The union said it wants to make sure the contract forces the medical director to spend time personally training and riding with paramedics. Currently, a team of training officers that reports to Lee is responsible for instructing paramedics.

Latin said it's hard for Lee to ride on every vehicle in a department that size and that every paramedic has Lee's phone number in case he's needed.

Frank Porcella, Margate's fire chief, said Lee occasionally visits fire stations and rides with paramedics there. But he said Lee is always reachable when needed and makes sure paramedics have the right training.

"Would the guys like to see him more? I'm sure they probably would," Porcella said. "But there aren't any concerns that the men have that aren't addressed either in person [by Lee] or through our EMS division chief."

But another authority says that may not be enough.

Dr. Michael Copass, Seattle Fire-Rescue's full-time medical director, is considered by many EMS experts to be one of the best directors in the United States, largely because his department has one of the highest patient-survival rates in the nation. He said it's crucial for a medical director to play a personal role in paramedics' training and field time if patients are going to get life-saving care.

A medical director "needs to have contact with his people on a day-by-day basis," said Copass, who was featured in a recent USA Today series comparing departments around the country that provide EMS. "You can't do it by remote control."

Only two cities, Coral Springs and Oakland Park, require Lee to spend a specific amount of time personally training and riding with paramedics.

training requirements

In Coral Springs, Lee must be available for four hours per month for classroom teaching and reviews and four hours for field time with paramedics, according to an amendment the city added to his contract in December.

But the first training session he attended this year was Aug. 19, City Clerk Peter Richardson said after conferring with Coral Springs Fire Chief Donald Haupt.

Lee's contract with Coral Springs gave him an automatic two-year extension when it expired Sept. 30. However, Haupt said "there's been some concern" in the department about Lee's record of personally conducting training.

Chris Bator, the district vice president for Coral Springs' fire union, said firefighters aired their complaints to Lee during the Aug. 19 meeting about him not spending enough time with paramedics.

"A majority of our people only know him by name but never met him until the meeting," Bator said.

Oakland Park's contract with Lee mandates that he ride with paramedics there for at least 24 hours annually. However, records show Lee rode for only six hours in 2002. Records from previous years were not available.

Lee said he has complied with his contracts, and he questioned the accuracy of the records cited by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel because he said he had not seen them.

"I certainly would assume that if I was not [in compliance], I would hear from the city," he said.

The state Department of Health requires fire-rescue departments -- not medical directors -- to maintain training records.

Along with his medical director duties, Lee is the chief of emergency medicine for the North Broward Hospital District and a board member of PhyAmerica South Florida, a service that contracts emergency room physicians to local hospitals.

He began his medical career as an Air Force flight surgeon during the Vietnam War. He is the vice president of the Florida Emergency Medicine Foundation and chairs Broward Community College's curriculum advisory committee on EMS training for paramedics, and the state Health Department honored him as the top medical director in Florida in 1997 for his work with Margate Fire-Rescue.

Lee said his role as medical director of six systems and work with the hospitals give him a huge advantage in training paramedics.

"Because of my ... 24-hour- a-day involvement in the prehospital side and the hospital side, I believe that brings tremendous value to the systems that I work with," he said.

"It does keep me busy."

Staff Writer Shannon O'Boye contributed to this report.