Too Many Fire Chiefs

Evergreen Fire/Rescue is burning money ó and residentsí patience.

But after a few months as a volunteer chief, Janov was all for the idea. "The simple explanation is that I changed my mind," he says. "I spent ten years in the volunteer ranks. Once you step outside of that and take on the responsibility of chief, your responsibility is no longer to the popular vote, but to the district board."

The decision wasn't his alone. The OET team included the district boardmembers and various division chiefs, as well as several members of the volunteers' own elected board. In late 2005 the team released a report recommending the hiring of a paid chief. The process would involve a national search for candidates, the report declared, and the new chief would have a minimum of five years of firefighting experience at a command level, as well as a bachelor's degree in an associated field.

The volunteers were understandably curious about what kind of hired gun would be found to fill the post. Imagine their surprise when, a few weeks later, the district board announced that the position had been filled without a national search. The new boss didn't meet the qualifications spelled out in the OET white paper and didn't even have a bachelor's degree. He was, however, already intimately familiar with the challenges facing the district. In fact, the new boss was the same as the old boss: Joel Janov.

"I think that was the turning point in the relationship," says Neppell. "The fire department has never resisted changes at a reasonable level. The issue was to hire someone who was qualified for this important new position. The board didn't do that. Joel was the one driving the process — and the one getting the position."

Board president Shanley points out that Janov was already serving not just as volunteer chief, but as "interim administrator" as well, after the district administrator had withdrawn from the ongoing conflict. "He seemed ultimately qualified to the board," Shanley says. "He did not seek or ask for the job. We asked him if he would be interested, and he did accept. It saved a lot of time, we had a known entity, and we really thought it was in the best interests of the taxpayers to save the expense of a national search."

Neppell had supported Janov in his run for volunteer chief and had even served as a campaign advisor. But what he and other volunteers wanted from a volunteer chief and expected from a paid chief seemed two entirely different things. The disparity still baffles Janov.

"It could have been handled differently and probably should have been, in hindsight," he says. "It's always amazed me that, during the two years I was elected, there was no question of my qualifications to be chief. But as soon as it was no longer their choice, my qualifications were in question.

"The way I was hired opened the door for resistance to be waged. For some of them, it was very personal."

As Janov saw it, the real battle he was facing had little to do with personality issues. He contends that anyone who took the role of paid chief seriously, who tried to impose new systems of accountability and transform Evergreen Fire/Rescue into a more professional organization, would have ended up with the same mess.

"In a lot of volunteer departments that go through this transition, the first chief rarely survives a year," Janov says. "The real question comes down to service and values and what the community can afford. What's the objective — to serve the community or preserve the institution? The ethical answer is that we're here to serve the community. A healthy organization would be able to go through this introspective process without the threat of recalls and votes of no confidence and all that."

The new chief considered change not only ethical, but inevitable. The rustic volunteer response was no longer adequate in a community as large and affluent as Evergreen. Calls for service rose by 50 percent over the past decade and now stand at more than 2,000 a year; they range from car wrecks and deadly wildfires in the backcountry to minor wiring glitches in downtown businesses and elderly residents who've fallen and can't get up. There were pressing issues of training, liability, officer selection and other matters that required immediate attention.

But the volunteers tended to regard Janov's urgent reforms as a kind of revolution, not evolution. They were skeptical of many of his claims. Yes, call volume was up compared to ten or twenty years ago, but the ranks of the volunteers had grown significantly, too. The department wasn't suffering many of the ills — a declining volunteer pool, inadequate response time and so on — focused on in the "Red Ribbon Report," which Janov appeared to be using as a blueprint to bring in more paid positions. And the notion that Evergreen could "afford" better service rankled many of the senior officers.

"That insults me on two levels," says Jim Pidcock, who joined the volunteers six years ago and comes from a family of firefighters. "We're not providing good service now? There's no way a paid fire department could handle what this department does. You'd have to double the current budget just to get to a minimum level of staffing. But if you piss enough people off, you're going to have to go to a paid department because there won't be enough volunteers."

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