Baltimore County’s firefighter union earlier this year voted they had no confidence in some of the department’s most senior officers, in part because the union claimed those leaders were “undermining” the chief, creating a hostile workplace and affecting department morale.

More than 650 active and retired union members voted in early June on Chief Joanne Rund, assistant chiefs Paul Lurz and Jennifer Utz and Deputy Chief Francis DiPaula. A narrow majority of members backed Rund, while a wide majority of union members said they had no confidence in Utz and DiPaula, according to the report. The vote results for Lurz were redacted from the report because he has since retired.

“The toxic environment created by Senior Staff and Administration has led to decreased morale, inferior performance, and negative attitudes exuded by members of this once great Fire Department,” union members wrote, explaining the vote in the report.

The union, Baltimore County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Union Local 1311, also described concerns of intimidation from management, bullying, harassment, micromanagement, lack of support for emergency medical services workers and violations of the department’s standard operating procedures that have continued, according to the report, adding that the issues highlighted are not all inclusive, but some of the “most pressing.”

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Despite “some positive movement in the direction to address a number of issues,” members are not confident senior staff will follow through to achieve better workplace conditions for members, according to the report.

The committee’s report also said the lack of leadership and support is hindering the department from training leaders for the future.

Fire union president, John Sibiga, said members largely are feeling dejected.

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“There’s just a bullying and intimidation feeling from within the membership. And it’s a common theme throughout the report,” Sibiga said.

Rund, the county’s first female appointed chief, received support from 55% of members who voted. She has been in her role since 2019 and previously served as a leader with the Howard County Fire Department for 32 years prior to that.

“I would say some of the issues predate Chief Rund. Everybody is generally optimistic of Chief Rund’s ability to lead the department,” Sibiga said. “They just wish she was allowed to and that she didn’t have anybody that was undermining her.”

Elise Armacost, the fire department’s spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that Rund has been committed to a constructive working relationship with Local 1311 and has an open door policy.

“She expects every Fire Service member — especially chief officers — to maintain a culture of respect, mutual trust and understanding,” the statement said. “The chief officers referenced in the report are aware of the Local’s concerns and committed, like Chief Rund, to a constructive relationship that serves our shared mission.”

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Sean Naron, Baltimore County’s director of communications, said Rund continues to lead “critical efforts to strengthen and modernize” department. He also said the county will look for ways to improve conditions.

“We value our partnerships with our dedicated partners in labor, take their concerns seriously, and will explore additional opportunities to improve operations and further support the brave men and women who keep the residents of Baltimore County safe,” Naron said.

But members were less supportive of other department leaders. More than 90% of those voting said they had no confidence in Utz and more than three-quarters said they had no confidence in DiPaula.

Sibiga, the union president, pointed to the county’s unique pension requirements.

In 2007, Baltimore County became the only jurisdiction in Maryland where first responders require 30 years of service to be eligible to receive their pension upon retirement, according to Sibiga. However, workplace conditions have worsened in the past five to six years, making it harder to recruit and retain people, he added.

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“We’re firefighters, paramedics and EMS people, because we’re passionate about serving our community. And it’s just been very difficult to accomplish that,” Sibiga said. “We want to fix things. We want to work with the administration, both county and fire department administration, to fix certain workplace practices, [namely] the 30-year retirement which is very difficult to retain and recruit for,” he added.

Armacost said in a statement that the success of any department is measured by its performance, adding that the department responds to 150,000 calls a year and often hear from residents who are “pleased with and grateful” for the work we do.

“The Department under Chief Rund has invested millions in new apparatus, safety enhancements for personnel and support and expansion of Emergency Medical Services. EMS accounts for about 80% of all of our calls. Chief Rund will continue an aggressive agenda to build on these successes and welcomes input from Local 1311, as well as from our Volunteer members,” Armacost wrote.

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Penelope Blackwell is a Breaking News/Accountability reporter with The Banner. Previously, she covered local government in Durham, NC, for The News & Observer. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Morgan State University and her master’s in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. 

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