Firefighter’s Expulsion From Union Exposes Rift With Ambulance Company

POULSBO, WA — As punishment for working a second job at a Bremerton ambulance company, a longtime North Kitsap firefighter has been kicked out of the union that represents him.

The Professional Fire Fighters of Kitsap County IAFF Local 2819 brought charges to expel Mark Romero, 52, in May after he refused to quit working at Olympic Ambulance and Bremerton Ambulance. The union had told its members that it considered those companies, owned by Bill Littlejohn, to be rivals.

“You can’t go out there and go against the interests of the organization,” said Ricky Walsh, a vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “He chose his path.”

“We’re disappointed,” Littlejohn said of the declaration. “It’s never our intent to try to compete with the fire departments. We typically have a good relationship with them.”

Emergency medical technicians from Olympic Ambulance and Bremerton Ambulance respond to basic life support calls and provide basic transportation services between hospitals.

The IAFF declares an organization a rival “when their actions are found to be against the best interests” of the union, said Walsh, who represents more than 10,000 firefighters in Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Washington.

The row has its roots in a 2010 fire district annexation effort in Mason County.

Allyn-based Mason County Fire District 5 was seeking to annex the city of Shelton, where it already provided fire services on a contract basis. Firefighters supported the campaign financially, arguing that layoffs would be necessary in District 5 if it failed.

A Littlejohn-owned company, Mason County Medic One, provided emergency medical services in Shelton. Littlejohn financially supported the campaign to stop the annexation.

Voters rejected the annexation. Fire District 5 was forced to make budget cuts, but no firefighters were laid off.

The political experience spurred the IAFF to declare Littlejohn’s organizations rivals. Union firefighters were asked to quit jobs with Littlejohn’s companies.

Romero, who trained many firefighters as an EMT instructor, refused to quit and fought the changes. He said his salary from the Littlejohn companies helped support himself, his wife and his five children.

North Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Dan Smith, Romero’s boss, said the union’s decision does not affect Romero’s employment. Firefighters do not have to be in a union in Washington state.

Romero is particularly bothered by the expulsion because of his history with the union. He is a founding member of Local 2819 and has repeatedly worked on behalf of his fellow members over the years.

“It affects my sense of honor and integrity,” he said. “I spent countless hours defending these guys, negotiating contracts for them. Now they’re kicking me out in the twilight of my career.”

Romero said he will stop contributing to the union’s political fund; he isn’t sure whether he’ll contribute general union dues.

Walsh said the union takes seriously its responsibilities in both having brought charges against Romero and declaring Littlejohn’s organizations rivals. He estimated that only a couple of rival organizations are declared each year, and added that union leaders from outside of the area weigh the decision to give the process impartiality.

“The threshold is fairly steep,” he said.

Walsh said Romero can appeal the expulsion and that the IAFF can remove the “rival organization” status should situations change. A board meets once a year to talk about each case, he said, and he gathers input from the local union — in this case the one representing Mason County Fire District 5 — in preparation.

“There’s always a chance we can iron those things out,” he said.

From The Kitsap Sun

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