Pompano Lifeguard Burned in Gasoline Fire; Denied Benefits from City "Hardship Bank" | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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Pompano Lifeguard Burned in Gasoline Fire; Denied Benefits from City "Hardship Bank"

Pompano Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguard Michael Rolle was badly burned on June 28 in a freak accident.

"I was involved in a fire at my house," he says by phone. He would only reveal that it had to do with "moving gasoline" and that "I really don't like talking about it. I was burned over 18, 20 percent of my body -- my legs, both arms, and a little bit of my face... I'm lucky to be alive."

He had to be in the hospital for three weeks. Unfortunately for him, "I had used all of my sick and vacation time." He said that he used it all up taking care of his child, who had seizures.

Fellow first responders in the fire and ocean rescue departments rallied, offering to donate their own accrued vacation hours in hopes he could be paid through the city's "sick bank." But the city denied his request.

Rolle is remarkably optimistic, saying "I'm young, I'm healthy." He notes that he is back at work -- after he went two weeks without pay, the fire department was able to accommodate him with a light duty position until he's sufficiently rehabilitated, which could take months -- but he did feel that the city "should have had a little bit of consideration to grant me [some hardship funds]... there should have been a little more professional courtesy to that." He did, however, note that it was an off-the-job accident and said he was grateful to be allowed to return to work.

As word spread, fellow lifeguards and firefighters started stewing about the city manager, Dennis Beach, who has the final say in approving or disapproving payouts from the city fund.

But public communications director Sandra King explained more thoroughly:

City employees from clerks to administrators can choose to donate hours to a "sick bank" pool of funds, she said. When an employee faces an emergency, he or she can apply for a disbursement from the fund. Typically, payouts are for people who participate in the fund and donate eight hours' pay when they sign up for the optional program after a year of employment. But even city employees who don't give can ask for money from the fund if they face an unexpected emergency -- that's referred to as the "hardship bank."

But there a certain criteria that applicants must meet, King said, and while the city manager does indeed make the final call on whether or not to approve payouts, there's a six-person committee that reviews each application and makes a recommendation before the request even gets to the city manager.

The committee, she says, is composed of two members from each of the city's two unions -- general employees and fire -- plus two non-union employees. The four that are union are appointed by the unions and the other two are elected.

Criteria for releasing money from the fund are that it be for "an unexpected critical illness, with a poor prognosis or long term recovery."

"This employee that you're talking about was not in the sick bank," King says. "He didn't have any hours [contributed to it]." He had been an employee five years, so he applied for the "hardship bank" - same committee, same criteria.

It was the committee, she said, that nixed Rolle's application, and the city manager concurred.

King said the committee often doesn't consider the specifics of the illness -- privacy laws often prevent that -- but that Rolle was denied "due to his attendance record - specifically sick leave abuse."

She says the committee doesn't take its work lightly: "They painstake over this stuff like a jury deliberating a murder trial."

She likened the program to insurance -- "You can't wait for your house to catch fire, then go buy insurance; you've got to pay in, then it's there when you need it."

Rolle said he is a certified firefighter / paramedic and was looking at switching from lifeguarding to fire rescue, but that plan will be stalled until he's fully healed.

Though photos of him (which he asked us not to share) show him almost completely wrapped in bandages while at the hospital, and burn scars on a good portion of his face more recently, Rolle sounded like he would breeze right back to his old self.

"True character comes out in times of adversity," he said.

Lifeguards are hosting a fundraiser for Rolle on Thursday, September 12, at 5 p.m. at Pompano Beach Ocean Rescue Headquarters (50 North Pompano Beach Blvd, Pompano Beach). There will be "barbecue, volleyball, and libation." $10 donation is requested.