Mass. FD ordered to reinstate FF-medic fired over 'rude' interaction with patient
Thomas Swartz was fired for allegedly making judgmental comments regarding drug use to an 18-year-old and the patient's mother
Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
BOSTON — The state Civil Service Commission ordered the Bourne Fire Department to reinstate a firefighter who was fired in 2018 for making rude comments to a patient being treated by EMTs.
After getting fired on Aug. 22, 2018, Thomas Swartz, who started working for the Bourne Fire Department in 1997, filed an appeal with the Commission the next day. On July 29, 2021, the commission ordered that Swartz be reinstated as a firefighter.
Swartz was fired for comments he made to an 18-year-old patient and the patient's mother and for lying in his report. The commission found those claims to be unsubstantiated.
Current Bourne Fire Chief David Cody declined to comment, saying that the matter is a personnel issue that is still in litigation. Swartz' lawyer Joseph Sulman also did not respond to a request for comment.
Swartz had also filed a separate lawsuit in 2017 when the fire chief had required him to get a staff photo ID for work, claiming it was against his religion. That lawsuit was later dismissed.
Details of the case
At about 11:07 a.m. Jan. 28, 2018, the Bourne Fire Department received a call from a resident, identified in the commission's report only as Ms. S. She called about her 18-year-old son, who had a history of seizures and had collapsed in his room, according to the report.
Acting Deputy Chief Ryan Haden was first to arrive, and Ms. S said her son, identified only as A in the report, had had a seizure. Haden could smell marijuana, and when he entered the son's room, smoke hung in the air and there was marijuana paraphernalia.
Haden determined the son had characteristics of someone coming out of a seizure and found that he was stable. He asked Ms. S if her son uses other drugs and asked "where are the pills," according to the report. She said her son did not take other drugs, but when the father arrived he said that the son occasionally mixed marijuana with Xanax.
Swartz arrived at about 11:20 a.m. accompanied by firefighter Jared Shaughnessy. Swartz also noted the smell of marijuana, and Shaughnessy remembered seeing what appeared to be a standard prescription drug bottle in the room.
They moved the son by stretcher to the ambulance. Shaughnessy was driving the ambulance, and Swartz rode alone in the back with the son. Swartz asked some routine questions to identify any issues that would be important for the hospital to know, according to the report, such as if the patient had any illegal substances in his possession.
Swartz then told the son something about how his "actions had consequences for everybody involved" and that he needed to "grow up" and stay off risky drugs, according to the report.
Later in the hospital, they passed the son's bed where Ms. S. was sitting next to him in the hallway and stopped to exchange pleasantries, according to the report.
Shaughnessy was about 10 feet away facing the foot of the bed when Ms. S said, "he's a good kid," and Swartz replied, "yes, he's a good kid."
He said the son reminded him of his own stepson who had similar issues in the past. He told her what he said to the son in the ambulance, adding that "if that's what he wants to do maybe he should be on his own," according to the report.
Afterward Swartz told Shaughnessy that he was uniquely suited to have handled the call and that he believed he had a good rapport with Ms. S and her son.
Two days later on Jan. 30, 2018, Ms. S sent an email to then Fire Chief Norman Sylvester, saying that the staff who treated her son had an "attitude" that her son was "some sort of drug addict" and that a paramedic gave her son a lecture about "being a man."
She wrote in the email that the paramedic, the name of whom she did not know, had accused her son of doing heroin.
"My son has never touched heroin in his life and his blood work from his most recent ER this Sunday showed ZERO drugs," she wrote to Sylvester. "You might want to let your judgmental staff (sic) about that. ... I am just beyond disgusted that an employee who is supposed to help and support the public during emergencies treated my family this way."
Swartz and Shaughnessy were asked to provide a written report about the incident. They did not learn about the email until two days later, according to the commission's report. They discussed what to write in the report, and Shaughnessy prepared a one-paragraph report that focused on the medical care and treatment provided to the 18-year-old. Shaughnessy printed out a duplicate, and they both signed and submitted identical reports.
On Feb. 1, 2018 Swartz was asked to meet with Sylvester. Sylvester had read selected excerpts from the email. Swartz said he stuck by his statement and that he did nothing inappropriate. He went back on duty, and Shaughnessy was then called in for an interview with Chief Sylvester and Deputy Chief Paul Weeks.
Shaughnessy was asked if there was anything said to the son or the mother during the call, and Shaughnessy explained the interaction in the hallway. Sylvester asked that Shaughnessy put it in writing and submit an addition to his report.
At another meeting, Silvester showed Swartz a copy of Ms. S's email. He asked what happened, and Swartz said "I acknowledged the mother." Sylvester replied, "thank you, we're done here" and ended the meeting. Weeks told Swartz that he was being relieved of duty and placed on paid administrative leave.
On April 13, 2018, Sylvester sent Swartz a letter informing him that a hearing would be held on the chief's request to fire him for misconduct for his remarks to the boy and his mother, for being untruthful in his report and for being rude and insolent to a member of the public..
A hearing officer ruled in the chief's favor, finding that Swartz' misconduct violated the fire department's rules and regulations. Swartz filed an appeal the day after.
In October 2018, the commission held a pre-hearing conference in Boston, and on March 2019 Bourne moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, which Swartz's attorney opposed. The motion was taken under advisement and a full hearing was held on Sept. 13, 2019 and Nov. 6, 2019 at the Bourne Community Building, according to the report.
The Civil Service Commission found that Bourne did not have just cause to terminate Swartz and that his behavior with the mother did not constitute conduct "unbecoming a firefighter."
"Although (Swartz) did, inappropriately, albeit with good intention, interject certain personal opinions during his interaction with the patient and his mother after completing his assigned duties, such (a) minor lapse of judgement does not provide just cause for termination," commissioner Paul M. Stein wrote in the report.
It also found that Bourne failed to show that Swartz was being untruthful when giving his report, saying the written report was truthful. Swartz was ordered to prepare that report without any information about the complaint made by Ms. S.
"When he was ordered to submit that report, Firefighter Swartz was never asked to address any off-handed statements that he or any other firefighter might had made while administering care to the patient during the call, let alone, after the patient was transferred to the custody of the hospital and their duties had ended," Stein wrote.
The commission found that Swartz never accused the son of being a "heroin" addict but after smelling marijuana in the room where the son was found, Swartz did tell him that he needed to "grow up" and recognize the risks he was taking.
"While this off-handed comment may not have been appropriate and was made without any documented factual support that the patient's actions were 'risky,' the comments, standing alone, do not constitute conduct unbecoming a firefighter," Stein wrote.
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