Md. FFs union casts no-confidence vote against department leadership
Baltimore County firefighters say constant frustrations have led to a "toxic environment" and poor morale
By Lia Russell
BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md. — When she became Baltimore County Fire Chief in July 2019, Joanne Rund said her priority would be enhancing safety protections for firefighters and upgrading aging fire stations. She was applauded for bringing new perspective as Baltimore County Fire Department’s first permanently appointed female leader.
But four years later, firefighters say a “toxic environment” created by department leaders has led to poor morale, a shortage of staff and inconsistency in how discipline is meted out. In addition, one former firefighter, who now provides mental health support to firefighters, places blame upon the administration of Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
In June, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1311, which represents Baltimore County paramedics and firefighters, held a vote of no confidence naming Rund, assistant chiefs Jennifer Aubert-Utz and Paul Lurz, and Deputy Chief Francis “Skip” DiPaula Jr. An internal committee compiled a 17-page report detailing the reasons behind that vote and presented it to Olszewski last week, a copy of which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
“The toxic environment created by the senior staff and administration has led to decreased morale, inferior performance, and negative attitudes exuded by members of this once great fire department,” the report reads. “The lack of leadership and support to the field is hindering our ability to foster and teach the leaders of tomorrow.”
Some 538 active members and 124 retired members cast ballots, with 45.4% voting no confidence in Rund, meaning it didn’t pass; 90.7% for no confidence in Aubert-Utz; and 78.7% for no confidence in DiPaula. Vote tallies were not available for Lurz, who, county spokesperson Sean Naron said, retired in July.
The report detailed a “disturbing increase in the number of Notices of Investigation, discipline, and charges issued after the announcement of a fixed matrix that would dictate disciplinary action based on the offense” with discipline often appearing “inconsistent and even personal against members.” It also cited “bullying and intimidation by chief officers”; little punishment for chief officers, some of whom have been “caught lying in discipline hearings and falsifying documents”; and a “general lack of mutual respect, trust, or consistency between chief officers and members.”
Local 1311 President John Sibiga said he was “not surprised” at the members’ vote.
“The vote came from a frustration with the lack of action and lack of support” from fire department leadership, he said. “It’s been four years of ‘We’re going to fix this, we’re going to fix this, we’re going to fix this,’ and it hasn’t been fixed.”
In response, Rund said via spokesperson Elise Armacost: “This department expects a culture of respect, mutual trust and understanding of every fire service member, especially chief officers. The officers referenced in the Local 1311 report are aware of the concerns raised and are committed, as I am, to doing all we can to maintain constructive relationships that serve our shared mission.
“We respectfully disagree with some of the Local’s positions as stated in the report. It is vital, for example, to note that we are at once committed to building a workforce that reflects the County’s diversity while holding all prospective and current members subject to established professional standards.”
Naron said in a statement that the county valued its partnership with Local 1311 and would take its concerns seriously: “[We] will explore additional opportunities to improve operations and further support the brave men and women who keep the residents of Baltimore County safe.”
Bruce Snyder, a mental health trauma specialist and former Baltimore County firefighter, said he had tried to warn the administration about the department’s problems for more than a year before the union vote. He said the issues were compounded by a lack of adequate staffing and funding as laid out in an outside consultant’s report published last year.
In letters sent to officials and provided to The Sun that date from September 2022 to August 2023, Snyder wrote that he had met twice with Rund, in July 2022 and July 2023. He expressed concern at the number of firefighters attending the peer support groups he facilitates who reported suffering from stress and anxiety as a result of years of “disingenuous and punitive departmental practices,” some of which predated Rund’s tenure.
“Extremely poor leadership and pejorative management practices coming from your staff involving personnel issues continues to decimate the moral and quality job capabilities across the department,” Snyder wrote on March 23 to Rund. “It is clearly obvious from every conversation [with members] that a serious lack of meaningful consistency, or continuity, continues to run rampant throughout your administration.”
Armacost confirmed that Rund had met with Snyder and said the chief was “grateful for his ongoing interest” in the fire department’s health and safety initiative.
“[Rund] listened to his proposal and ultimately chose different resources to support our health and wellness programs,” Armacost wrote.
Snyder also laid blame at the feet of Olszewski’s administration and said in a letter dated last week to the county executive that the chief had told Snyder during a July 5 meeting that she blamed her ability to implement progressive policies on “bureaucratic ineffectiveness along with systematic failure from [the] county administration.”
“As County Executive, it is currently in your lap to facilitate this progress, as it is now your individual, direct ownership of culpability should first responders, or citizens, further escalate into harm’s way,” Snyder wrote to Olszewski.
County spokesperson Erica Palmisano said in response: “The administration fully supports — and will continue to support — our valued career and volunteer firefighters. The allegations in this letter simply do not reflect reality and our ongoing investments in the Baltimore County Fire Department, including funding for over $5 million to enhance salaries, millions to fund new apparatus, safety enhancements for personnel, and support for and expansion of Emergency Medical Services.”
A December 2022 report from FACETS Consulting, an outside organization hired by the county in 2021 to assess the fire department’s operations, management and administrative functions, also detailed some of the concerns raised by Snyder and the union.
The fire department “lacks sufficient fiscal, physical, and human resources to accomplish its core mission,” the report’s executive summary reads. Middle management is “woefully understaffed,” chief officers face “extraordinary” workloads, and the department operates on a budget that is tens of millions of dollars less than surrounding counties such as Anne Arundel and Howard, despite serving a higher population across a larger land area, according to the report.
In interviews with FACETS, both career and volunteer members of the department across ranks voiced issue with the department’s organizational climate.
“Many of the specific complaints ... related back to the department’s chronic lack of the resources required to provide the level of service expected. ... Beyond the issues arising from decades of ‘getting by’ without sufficient resources, there seem to be some deep-seated issues with the historic organizational culture and management practices,” according to the report.
“While these employees are proud of their ability to work ‘around the clock’ and keep the organization running, the stress from overwork and understaffing is palpable,” the report says.
Palmisano said that the county fully supported the blueprint set forth in the December 2022 FACETS report and that the county had already begun implementing the first round of recommendations in the current fiscal year budget.
“The administration remains committed to funding many of these recommendations, which will be a multi-year effort pending union negotiation and budget approval by the County Council,” she said.
In his letters to Rund and Olszewski, Snyder also copied Inspector General Kelly Madigan and Baltimore County Council Chair Julian Jones Jr., a Democrat.
Madigan declined to comment.
Jones, a retired Anne Arundel County Fire Department division chief, confirmed he had received at least one letter. He said it had been anonymous and, in his opinion, required no action because it did not address him.
“It’s always sad and not conducive to a good working environment when the union passes a vote of no confidence,” Jones said. “You would want everyone to be working in harmony to provide the best services to the citizens of Baltimore County.”
Snyder disputed that Jones was unaware of any communications, which “frustrated” him.
Baltimore County “has had every opportunity to address this,” Snyder said. “They’ve just elected not to.”