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

Dr. Harry Wayne Lee has worked for 33 years in emergency medicine and was once named the state's top EMS 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.

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