St. Johns County fire chief resigned amid turmoil, issues over sick leave, uniforms, response to Hurricane Idalia

Just five months after taking the helm, St. Johns County Fire Rescue Department Fire Chief Scott Bullard suddenly resigned last week.

Bullard was named chief in May to replace Chief Jeffrey Prevatt, who retired in December of last year.

It wasn’t immediately clear why Bullard walked away from what would be a dream job for many firefighters, but documents obtained by News4JAX revealed it came after a series of disputes with the county and the firefighter union over issues that included sick leave for firefighters, uniforms and the department’s response to Hurricane Idalia.

Bullard said Wednesday that he resigned based on a verbal agreement he had with a County Administrator, where he said he was told, if he resigned as fire chief, he would still be able to work with the St. Johns County Fire Department as a battalion chief.

“All I want to do is finish out my career,” Bullard said. “For 22 years of my life, I’ve dedicated myself to St. Johns County Rescue, the people there, the county, I’ve been a dedicated and committed employee. And to have my livelihood snatched away from me without notice and without reason, is unimaginable.”

He said he was blindsided when he was given the choice to resign or be fired.

In August, the local firefighters union told the county it had voted to “formally address concerns of safety and the ability of Fire Rescue Chief Scott Bullard to lead our department.”

The concerns by the union came after it said Bullard moved away from National Fire Protection Association-approved uniforms. The union said it had concerns over hazardous chemicals in the uniforms being handed out to new hires.

The union said Bullard switched to 65% polyester uniforms, but the union said he did not research them before the switch. The union said in a complaint to the county that the uniforms were “susceptible to melting and degradation when exposed to heat” which could lead to firefighter injury and there might be hazardous chemicals in them like PFAS, which the EPA says can lead to adverse health risks in people. The union wanted uniforms made out of cotton or natural fiber.

“What needs to be pointed out on this, these uniforms were ordered specifically for a group of new hires that came in,” Bullard said. “It’s been my initiative since I came into office to move away from the Nomex uniforms that we currently wear, which Nomex and many of the other flame retardant is treated with Forever chemicals, which are carcinogenic, firefighters already have a 70% chance of attracting cancer due to the nature of our job. We can’t unnecessarily expose them to uniforms that are leaching, literally leaching out this chemical into their skin. So that’s been my initiative all along the union president Dave Stevens has been we were in agreement with that.”

Bullard said the uniforms were part of the initial testing and there wasn’t a final determination that the rest of the county’s firefighters would use the uniforms.

Then, in September, the county completed an investigation into the department’s response to Hurricane Idalia, which blew through Florida in late August. The investigation came after several members of the fire department said the agency didn’t follow normal protocols during the storm.

Those who were interviewed — which included three battalion chiefs, a deputy chief and the fire union president — raised multiple concerns including their belief that there was a lack of communication from fire rescue administration before the storm, the fact that a key member of management was allowed to travel out of the state on county business two days before the storm, and issues with inadequate staffing and the late deployment of two storm-designated fire trucks, among other issues. Everyone who spoke to the county said they had low confidence in Bullard’s competence.

The county determined in its conclusion, sent out on Sept. 13, that “immediate action should be taken to rectify the inadequacies exhibited by the Fire Chief before the next emergency event.”

“I absolutely disagree about the statement of being unprepared, I feel we were more than prepared,” he said.

Bullard said he went by the same storm plan that’s been in place for years.

“A lot of this stuff is news to me that I’m just now finding out,” Bullard said. “I mean, especially with work you particularly with the one deputy chief was in the same building with me, and she never voiced any concerns, you know, to this day.”

There was also an issue involving sick pay for firefighters raised by the county just days before Bullard’s resignation on Oct. 3.

Interim County Administrator Joy Andrews wrote an email to Bullard on Sept. 30 that said Bullard “made a decision to prohibit use of accumulated vacation leave when an employee exhausts all sick leave.”

That decision, made by Bullard in June, meant if an employee didn’t have enough accrued sick leave to cover the time they were out sick they were placed on leave without pay. Andrews said that policy was in direct conflict with the county policy that says once an employee uses all sick leave, they must use all accumulated leave before they can move to leave without pay.

“The implications for this decision place the County at risk for an unfair labor practice claim by the union,” Andrews wrote.

She then said the policy put in place by Bullard should be rescinded immediately.

Bullard’s memo to staff where he talked about the new sick leave policy said it was put in place because there was an increased frequency of times when department members called out sick without having enough sick leave.

Bullard said that the call was made by a county human resources director.

Bullard was a 21-year Fire Rescue veteran who served as a firefighter, engineer, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief. He was the 2013 Fire Rescue Paramedic of the Year and developed several department initiatives, such as the Firefighter Development Program.

Bullard said he has filed a grievance against St. Johns County that states according to the collective bargaining agreement, he’s eligible to revert back to his position of battalion chief. He said he’s done nothing that can be perceived as immoral, unethical or illegal. St. Johns County administrators have not yet responded to his grievance.

“Even if you want to take the past, you know, 10 months out of the equation, for the prior 21 years, I’ve had an excellent career, no disciplinary action, been loyal, committed. And I’ve, you have done everything that’s been asked of me and more. Then I have a lot of support from members of the department that are trying to, you know, rally and support me and support the effort to bring me back to my position,” he said.

Bullard said he’s now on administrative leave for 90 days, but he said he still has three years before he’s eligible to retire.

Battalion Chief Sean McGee is now serving as acting Fire Chief while the department conducts a nationwide search for a permanent replacement. McGee has been with St. Johns County Fire Rescue for 25 years, starting as a firefighter before being promoted to various ranks in the department. He has served as Battalion Chief for the past 11 years.

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