A high-ranking Bellingham Fire Department paramedic has been fired for coming to work with alcohol in his bloodstream, according to public records obtained by The Bellingham Herald.
Sean Patrick Farnand, 46, a paramedic captain and a training program leader for Whatcom Medic One, has filed grievances with the city through the local firefighters’ union in hopes of getting his job reinstated. The city denied his latest appeal last week, but he could still request an arbitration hearing.
As an EMS captain, Farnand supervised about a dozen paramedics each day. He responded to emergency aid calls himself as a supervisor.
Reached for comment, Farnand declined to talk with a reporter while his case is pending.
This was the second time he’d been disciplined for misconduct related to alcohol.
The latest incident
On the morning on March 14, the 18-year veteran of the fire department reported for duty at a Bellingham fire hall after a night of drinking, according to the internal investigative documents received by the Herald in a records request.
Those records tell the following story:
Around 8 a.m. a firefighter reported to another captain that Farnand’s breath smelled of alcohol. Minutes later the city’s fire chief, Bill Newbold, had been called and notified. Two battalion chiefs spoke with Farnand at the station.
“Have you been drinking alcohol?” a battalion chief asked.
“No,” Farnand said, according to the records.
He went on to claim he had not been drinking that morning, though he drank three beers the night before around 9 p.m. The battalion chiefs “observed that Farnand had blood-shot, glassy eyes, appeared bloated, and overall did not appear healthy,” according to the records.
Chief Newbold ordered him to take a breath test at Care Medical on Meridian Street. Two tests, given at 10 a.m. and 10:17 a.m., came back positive with his blood-alcohol content measured at 0.043 and 0.040.
Under the city’s drug-free workplace policy, “a breathalyzer test of between 0.02 and 0.039 would be considered a positive test but would not result in disciplinary action for the test reading itself other than taking leave without pay for the remainder of his/her work day(s) or shift.”
More serious discipline is possible for a reading above 0.039.
That morning a co-worker drove Farnand home.
Farnand has served more than two decades as a career firefighter. He helped bring national accreditation to Bellingham’s paramedic training program, led two paramedic classes to a 100 percent pass rate on a national registry exam while cutting costs in half, and trained 68 EMTs through Whatcom Fire District 14 in Sumas.
He represented the fire department on the county’s Emergency Medical Services council, the county’s EMS technical advisory board, and the Community Organizing Group for Health.
In his regular duties, he led four paramedic units and coordinated how their resources were deployed. The city has four paramedic captains. One works each shift.
Farnand also taught continuing education classes for the city’s paramedics.
Dr. Marvin Wayne, medical director of Whatcom Medic One, oversaw Farnand as the program leader of Bellingham’s paramedic training program.
“He saved many lives,” Wayne said. “He was a very, very productive employee for 99.9 percent of his career. I just know the good he’s done, and the quality work he’s done for me.”
Some great people in history, Wayne added, have struggled with substance abuse.
Alcoholism has long been a struggle for Farnand, court records show, and six years ago he was disciplined for alcohol-related misconduct on a work conference trip to Florida.
Orlando police records state an officer saw Farnand stumbling not far from his Disney World hotel around 1 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in August 2009. The officer hailed him a cab, but a few minutes later Farnand became “combative” with the cabbie and tried to climb into the driver’s seat.
Police returned to find Farnand drunk, in traffic, his fists closed in a fighting stance. He was arrested on a charge of disorderly intoxication, taken to jail, and banned from the Disney-owned property where the firefighting conference was being held. He could not attend the rest of the conference. So after posting bail and speaking with his union representative, he flew home early, according to Bellingham Fire Department disciplinary records from 2009.
Farnand explained to fire department leaders that he had gone out to dinner that night and had drinks with other conference attendees. Afterward, he went out by himself and drank more. The next thing he remembered was the jail cell, according to the records. It was the first time he’d been in trouble with police.
Chief Bill Boyd, then the city’s fire chief, gave him a one-shift suspension without pay.
Farnand’s city-issued credit card had one charge on it, the $938 hotel bill.
“I do not mind telling the Court or anyone else who needs to know that I have alcoholism,” Farnand, a father of three, wrote in child custody papers from 2011. “I have worked hard to recognize my triggers, ameliorate them to the extent possible, and integrate with a supporting community. It is an ongoing commitment that I must make.”
Two weeks after the on-the-job incident this year, on March 30, court records listed his mailing address as a rehab center in Utah. City policy allows accrued leave to be used for alcohol treatment.
“I wanted to let you know that I am leaning toward resigning my position, for personal reasons, but want to sit down with my people face to face once before making that decision,” Farnand told Chief Newbold in an email dated April 21.
He also wrote a formal apology to the chief: “I betrayed my obligation to the Bellingham Fire Department and the entire community we serve with my actions on March 14, 2015.”
However, Farnand did not resign.
Newbold gave Farnand his final decision on May 4. He’d been terminated.
Email records show Farnand sent a message to Bellingham Fire staff: “Brothers and Sisters, Serving and living with you for the last 18 years has been the greatest privilege and honor of my life.”
The next week, Farnand filed an appeal through the city’s Civil Service Commission: “I believe the level of discipline in this matter is excessively harsh and arbitrary, and is based on subjective and/or questionable evidence,” a reference to the possible margin of error in breath tests.
He withdrew his appeal just before a June 10 hearing, and in the meantime filed a grievance through the firefighters’ union, Local 106, requesting to have his job reinstated, on the grounds that the discipline wasn’t done in progressive steps and did not accommodate Farnand’s disability. The name of the disability in question is redacted in public records. Many of the blacked-out words are surrounded by references to alcohol.
“Simply stated,” the fire chief responded in a letter, “the City’s obligation to accommodate (redacted) does not extend to excusing his intoxication while on duty.”
The letter goes on to counter the margin-of-error argument: “Based on generally accepted scientific principles, Captain Farnand’s breath alcohol content was approximately 0.073 – 0.083 when he reported for duty.”
Newbold also said the 2009 case had been “one of the most important factors that I considered in deciding to terminate Captain Farnand’s employment.” The Florida event isn’t mentioned in a series of letters from the union.
City Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich upheld the chief’s decision to fire Farnand in a letter dated Friday, June 26. If the union chooses to pursue the case further, Heinrich said, the next step would be an arbitration hearing, where a mediator would decide whether Farnand gets his job back.
This week, a Local 106 representative, Mannix McDonald, did not return a reporter’s phone call asking if Farnand would seek arbitration.
Farnand’s three Department of Health licenses — paramedic certification, EMS evaluator approval, and senior EMS instructor recognition — remained active as of this month. A health department spokeswoman, Sharon Moysiuk, said no one has filed a request to have Farnand investigated by the state.