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Fla. flight medic faces hearing over missing drugs

He's not being blamed for the narcotics going missing, he is being punished for waiting too long to report it

David Goodhue
The Reporter 

MONROE COUNTY, Fla. — A Monroe County flight medic that could lose his job in the wake of missing drugs from a helicopter air ambulance hangar storage room faces a disciplinary hearing Tuesday.

Orlando Merced must plead his case before Battalion Chief Gary Boswell at 1 p.m. at the Marathon Government Center. So-called pre-disciplinary hearings are closed to the public.

While Merced, 43, who could not be reached for comment, is not being blamed for the narcotics going missing, he is being punished for waiting too long to report it.

Monroe County Fire-Rescue Chief James Callahan said Merced worked a full 24-hour shift on Oct. 11 without reporting the drugs were gone or that the storage room, at Florida Keys Marathon Airport, was in disarray when he reported for work at the beginning of his shift.

"On the second day, only after the oncoming paramedic discovered the drug discrepancy, did Merced then come forward to report the medical room was in disarray," Callahan said in a e-mail last month. "At that time, on the second day, all appropriate contacts were made to initiate an investigation."

Merced has been on unpaid suspension since early February. Callahan said Thursday he has authorized Merced to use his unaccrued vacation time. Merced has served with the Monroe County Fire-Rescue Department for more than 12 years.

The drugs -- two 10-milligram vials of morphine and three 40-milligram vials of an intravenous anesthetic called Etomidate -- disappeared sometime between Sept. 29 and early October, when the TraumaStar helicopter ambulance was out of service for routine maintenance.

Merced is being represented at Tuesday's hearing by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3909, but Carlos Martinez, the Keys' union president, would not comment on the case.

Merced reported the drugs were missing to Capt. Andrea Sutherland, who called the Monroe County Sheriff's Office on Oct. 13 to report the incident. The Sheriff's Office closed its investigation in December, citing lack of witnesses, fingerprints or suspects.

Two people close to the investigation said rank-and-file firefighters think Merced is being scapegoated for the missing drugs and that Sutherland is the one ultimately responsible for TraumaStar's medication. They also say Merced's punishment is an example of inconsistent punishment meted out within the department.

Sutherland, who could not be reached for comment for this story, was involved in an incident in August 2010 in which she left the hangar off-duty with medical supplies. Then-Lt. Sutherland left the airport with the supplies at noon on Aug. 10. Her battalion chief, Mark Thompson, returned the supplies the next day at 7 a.m., according to a duty log obtained by The Reporter.

In a statement submitted to The Reporter for a June 2012 story on the incident, Gary Boswell, deputy chief of operations for the fire department, acknowledged Sutherland took the supplies out of the building but denied she violated law or policy.

Boswell said Sutherland "became aware of a medical need of a local volunteer firefighter." He said Sutherland determined the firefighter's condition "did not warrant the utilization of 911, and that person could receive assistance in-home."

John Hamburger, then the union president who claimed he was fired for reporting the incident, said last year that the supplies included IV bags.

Administering intravenous medicine is considered advanced life support, and administering advanced life support for a non-emergency while off duty is considered practicing medicine without a license, according to state law.

Hamburger appealed his firing and was rehired following a magistrate's ruling in January 2013.

Callahan said this week that Sutherland did not face punishment for the incident because "she did not conceal the taking of the medical supplies, no medical treatment was given, no drugs were involved, and the supplies were returned.

"She admitted her mistake, her statements were consistent and she took personal responsibility," Callahan said.

Callahan said Merced, by contrast, continued to "have conflicting statements" about the missing drugs after the initial report.

"The circumstances of the two incidents are very different, as well as the actions, truthfulness and professionalism of the two individuals," Callahan said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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