Too Many Fire Chiefs

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

"It's going to be 100 percent volunteer as long as I'm here," Shanley says. "And I believe that within the organization, we are pretty much on the same page now and ready to resolve what few issues may remain."

Some volunteers don't share Shanley's optimism, though. Last winter's announcement that Janov was on his way out was supposed to make things easier, but they say it actually added to the confusion: Why was he still there? When would the new chief arrive? What would happen then?

If Chief Janov was no longer involved in strategic planning, it didn't show in his management style. He continued to push his agenda; one veteran described him as "the most confident lame-duck CEO you've ever seen." And in February, when the board unveiled a document it described as the "roadmap" to the department's future, that document was rich in consultant-speak and had Janov's fingerprints all over it.

Shanley says the roadmap isn't a change of direction, but a clarification. "All we really are doing is transferring procedures and policies to the district," he says. "The procedures aren't going to change."

But the intentions as well as the semantics of the roadmap were as clear as a combustion event in a coal seam. "Volunteer fire fighting structure still is the preferred model, although not required," it declared. "As the District Board has authority over operational tasks, they are also the recognized authority for determining what work is done/not done."

Further clarification came in the April edition of Hot Topics, the newly inaugurated, consultant-tested official newsletter of EFR. "Popular votes will no longer exist for officer and management positions," the newsletter explained. The volunteers' elected board would no longer be responsible for "operational activities." There would be one set of standards, one chief, one staff handbook, one ring to rule them all, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them/In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie — or something like that.

For months, dissenters such as Neppell and Pidcock had argued that the proposed changes would turn the volunteers into unpaid employees, with no say over how they fought fires or who would lead them into a burning building. The roadmap and its subsequent clarifications didn't exactly dispel that impression, and friction between the camps continued to build as the April board meeting approached. There'd even been an exchange of words between Operations Chief Soibelman and a paid staffer, leading to some kind of disciplinary action that none of the parties cared to discuss publicly (though it did prompt more phone conferences with consultants). The incident, whatever it was, seemed to reinforce the notion that the volunteers needed their own elected leaders to represent them.

By the time the board meeting rolled around, Janov had handed in his resignation. "He recognized that, even though he was in an interim situation, he'd become something of a lightning rod," Shanley says. "He voluntarily resigned."

If he remains unemployed for the next nine months, Janov will receive a severance package worth $71,000. The board has retained the services of a national recruiting firm to help conduct the search for a new chief; the contract calls for initial costs and service fees ranging from $25,000 to $27,500. The process could take another four months; in the meantime, various management duties are being divided among boardmembers, division leaders and outside contractors.

Not everyone is prepared to wait. The BEST members have revived their effort to recall boardmembers Shanley and Klaus. They'd like to see the roadmap put on hold until a new chief is in place. But Shanley argues that a top-flight candidate will only be available if the reorganization is completed first, and he's hopeful that upcoming meetings between the board and the volunteers will straighten out their differences. The people campaigning for his recall, he says, are "outsiders" who are no longer in the loop and don't represent widespread community sentiment.

"They don't understand the progress we've made," he adds. "They're ill-informed."

But Julie Kling insists that Shanley is building a bureaucracy the taxpayers don't need. "There are times when you probably do need consultants," she says. "But when you've got a PR firm making several thousands of dollars a month off a fire department, it seems absurd."

Many volunteers would be happy if the PR wizards and the media simply went away. "All the public sees is that their fire department is in disarray," says one senior officer. "These stories can't do anything but erode their confidence in our ability to handle their emergencies."

Two days after the board meeting, the volunteers had a chance to do what they do best. A Sunday-afternoon fire at the Holly Berry flower shop on Highway 74 caused extensive damage and spread to the Evergreen National Bank next door, but the responding crews — including some from other departments — quickly got it contained.

Joel Janov was not among them. He'd been less visible on calls since becoming the paid chief, and now there was no reason for him to be there. But he insists he has no hard feelings about his departure.

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