Exclusive: Lake County fires three firefighters over 112-minute ambulance response

Three Lake County firefighters have been fired — and a fourth has resigned — for alleged “actions or inactions” that led to an apparent 112-minute lag from the time of an emergency call until an ambulance arrived.

Investigators found that firefighters on the two units nearest to the site of the Jan. 4 emergency failed to promptly alert dispatchers that they were available to respond. As a result, a third unit, much further away, was sent to the scene.

When firefighters on the two closer units were interviewed by an investigator, they changed their initial explanations for their actions after being confronted with video, audio and data evidence that contradicted their stories.

That led to their terminations Wednesday, investigative documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel reveal.

The subject of the medical call was an 80-year-old man who fell at his home in Four Corners, an area about 20 miles south of Clermont. Computer-aided dispatch notes show he was alert, breathing, and not bleeding but he had been on the floor for six hours.

An ambulance eventually transported him to the hospital. The extent of his injuries could not be learned.

“This incident was not representative of the county’s or Lake County Fire Rescue’s mission,” said Sarah Lux, spokesperson for Lake County, explaining the firing decision amid a firefighter shortage. “Yes, recruitment is an important initiative – and one that we will continue to focus on – but we will always prioritize the safety of our community above all else.”

The probe and the firings occurred against a backdrop of labor-management strife in the Lake County fire department that appears to have contributed to the firefighters’ discontent and — ironically — to the discovery of their misdeeds.

The probe was sparked by a snarky post on the Facebook page of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3990 that cited the slow response, blaming staffing levels and chiding Lake County commissioners for “gambling with public safety.”

The union, which represents firefighters in ongoing contract negotiations with Lake County, has feuded with county commissioners in recent months over low firefighter pay, mandatory overtime rules and inadequate staffing levels within Fire Rescue.

Fire Rescue has over 50 open positions in a department authorized for 427 firefighters.

In the wake of the Facebook blast, Deputy Fire Chief John Simpson was chosen by Public Safety director David Kilbury to conduct the investigation of the delayed response. Simpson examined 911 call logs, tracking data from ambulance location systems, and video and audio recordings from DriveCam, a dual-camera device mounted to a rescue vehicle’s windshield and programmed to record the road ahead and the inside of the vehicle.

The probe focused on two ambulance teams, each leaving a hospital in Clermont about the time that Lake County’s 911 communication center fielded a call for emergency medical services in south Lake at 12:45 p.m. Jan. 4.

A minute later, Rescue 85, staffed by driver Scott Summers and firefighter/paramedic Matthew Schultz, left South Lake Hospital, according to tracking data. But the crew didn’t announce their availability to respond to the emergency until eight minutes later.

Rescue 109 left an AdventHealth care center at 12:52 p.m. after transporting a patient there, according to tracking data, but firefighter/paramedic Joseph Maleski didn’t notify dispatch of his unit’s availability until 12:58 p.m.

The three firefighters were placed on paid leave Jan. 8 and fired Wednesday because of “serious misconduct” and other violations of departmental policies and procedures.

Firefighter Jakob Bush, who was also aboard Rescue 109, resigned Jan. 5.

Simpson said the two squads were the closest units to the 911 call location when they left the hospitals, but dispatchers — unaware of their availability — had to send a more distant unit to provide emergency medical services. It arrived at 2:37 p.m., according to dispatch records, an hour and 52 minutes after the emergency call was received. Simpson concluded the firefighters’ actions were “a direct contributing factor” to what he called an “excessive response time,” though he never says how long it should have taken for an ambulance to get there.

Dispatch records show a fire engine arrived at the scene much earlier — at 1:24 p.m. — but it could not transport the man to the hospital.

“This is an ongoing disciplinary process and it is not appropriate for us to comment on personnel issues,” Jason Graham, president of the Local 3990, said in a text Thursday.

“However it is important to note that Lake County firefighters and paramedics have had productive discussions over the last week with county commissioners,” Graham added. “This is a positive step in the right direction as we continue to work in collaboration with our commissioners to find viable solutions for the ongoing staffing crisis.”

The investigative reports obtained by the Sentinel through a public records request showed the firefighters were questioned separately by Simpson in the presence of two union representatives, including William “Joe” Warbritton, vice president of Local 3990.

The reports summarized the firefighters’ answers during the recorded interviews.

After posing several questions in each interview, Simpson then played the DriveCam video for the firefighters who each conferred privately with their union representatives, then offered different answers to investigator queries.

Firefighter/paramedic Maleski apologized, saying his behavior was neither appropriate nor professional. “States he was overworked and having a bad day,” the report read. “He went on to say he was irritated and mad.”

Summers, a 17-year firefighting veteran, said his role on Rescue 85 was to drive the ambulance and he didn’t know what else he could have done, “but that he should have done something different.”

“He discussed his love of the agency and what he does. He talked of his dedication and that he would not intentionally dodge calls.”

At first, Schultz, who joined Lake County Fire Rescue four years ago, said he couldn’t recall all the details because he works many overtime shifts. He then changed his answer after a break to confer with his union rep.

“Stated he doesn’t remember all the details but his relief was waiting at the station. He stated that he was not thinking and wanted to get off at a reasonable time. He went on to state that he delayed calling ‘available’ with the mindset that his relief was waiting on him.”

“States that after reviewing the video, it was wrong for him to do what he did. He stated this was a bad action resulting from a bad decision that he made,,” the report noted. “He went on to say he takes full responsibility for his actions.”

The Facebook post on the union’s members-only site that kicked off the probe read:

“Hello, thank you for calling Lake County 911, your expected wait time for an ambulance today is one hour and twenty-two minutes. Although that’s not what dispatchers said when a call for help came in yesterday [Jan. 4] from a Lake County citizen in Clermont, that’s how long it took for an ambulance to arrive on scene to transport the patient.”

“Why? Because Lake County officials refuse to admit they have failed the citizens they were elected to serve, Because County officials continue to ignore the issues and hope it will go away. Waiting over an hour for an ambulance when you call 911 because Lake County refuses to provide the level of service you deserve. Does this sound like an EMS system strategy you expect?

“Contact Lake County Commissioners and demand they stop gambling with public safety and provide the level of public safety you expect and deserve!”

The post featured images of the county’s five elected commissioners and a stock photo of a man extending one hand as a greeting and his other hand behind his back with fingers crossed.

shudak@orlandosentinel.com