Too Many Fire Chiefs
After it was all over — the emergency meetings and votes of no confidence, the suspensions and resignations, the backroom intrigues and public squabbles, culminating in the ouster of the fire chief — Charlie Neppell decided it was time to give credit where credit was due. So when the board of directors of the Evergreen Fire Protection District held their monthly meeting in April, Neppell was there to suggest that they seemed to be doing a bang-up job of destroying their own volunteer fire department.
In a sprawling mountain community with little municipal government to speak of, special districts like the EFPD are the true seat of local power. Yet fire-district board meetings have never attracted much of an audience — until last month. Despite the fact that the gathering had been scheduled at the unfriendly hour of eight o'clock on a Friday morning, the room was quickly populated by dozens of firefighters and their families, many eager to obtain official confirmation of the resignation of Chief Joel Janov, reported just hours earlier. Reporters were also on hand, as well as bona fide representatives of the public. The best the five members of the board could do was hunker down and get on with it.
Public comment was limited to three minutes per speaker. But that didn't discourage Neppell. He stood and delivered a concise recitation of what, in his view, were the board's greatest sins. The board had sown the seeds of conflict in 2005 by naming Janov, then the elected chief of the volunteers, to the newly created position of paid fire chief, a $95,000-a-year job with specific qualifications that Janov didn't have. The board had hired waves of consultants and conducted an extensive survey of departmental strife, the results of which were "held up and covered up."
The board had sought to intimidate its critics and stifle free debate. It had tried to mess with the very nature of a volunteer fire department, referring to the firefighters as "noncompensated employees" and seeking control over operational decisions. Worse, the resulting turmoil had turned the volunteers against each other — leading, among other things, to the suspension of three officers for speaking their mind and the termination of one Charlie Neppell, formerly a department lieutenant. Neppell's outspokenness had gotten him removed from his post — not by Janov, but by the elected leadership of the volunteers.
"Trust is easy to lose and difficult to regain," Neppell said.
The boardmembers sat glumly through the scolding, offering no response. They didn't respond to direct questions raised by other speakers, either. When the public comment period ended, EFPD president Phil Shanley, a local business leader who's been on the board since 1975, announced the resignation of the absent Chief Janov, thanked him for twelve years of service as a volunteer — and quickly moved on to other business, the purchase of a $3,800 floor scrubber.
A consultant was summoned to discuss the selection process for a new chief. She turned to the audience for questions. Shanley abruptly cut off the first one.
"The time for public comment is over," he said.
Shanley's proclamation didn't sit well with the crowd; a few people soon left in a huff. It also seemed to alarm the newest boardmember, Charles "Chick" Dykeman, a retired funeral director with a long history of serving on community boards. Recently appointed to fill a vacancy, Dykeman tried to end the meeting on a conciliatory note, assuring everyone that the district had no intention of replacing its volunteers with paid firefighters.
"We are making extraordinary efforts to reach a balanced point," he said. "I am reminded of a Chinese proverb: 'There's no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.'"
Dykeman's remarks drew applause. For some in the room, the conflict had been about the fire chief, and now that he'd resigned, armistice was a distinct possibility. Others weren't so sure. After all, the district board had backed Chief Janov's play, and some of the most bruising battles of the past sixteen months had been fought over the board's seeming indifference to the volunteers' concerns about where all this was heading. Would another paid chief really get things back on track?
Janov himself, no longer an active part of the debate, took a different view, of course. He had never considered his problems with the volunteers to be a matter of his popularity, or lack of same; rather, they were a knee-jerk reaction to the necessary and logical changes he'd tried to bring to the operation. "There's a real story here about the sociology of volunteerism," he says now. "This notion that an organization founded on real good civic merits evolves into something that exists for the sake of its own existence, with resistance to being accountable to the people it's serving."
But supporters of that organization argue that the boardmembers are the ones who forgot the people they're serving. They talk about a creeping bureaucracy and the way the board's "big-city philosophy" is costing taxpayers close to $20,000 a month for various outside experts and consultants, including the services of a public-relations firm. Last week a group called Best Emergency Service Transition for Evergreen, or BEST, started by disillusioned ex-volunteers such as Neppell, announced a new effort to recall Shanley and fellow boardmember David Klaus, claiming that their grand plans to "reorganize" Evergreen Fire/Rescue jeopardizes the volunteer system that is its heart. For them, the battle over control of the fire department has become a kind of referendum on the future of Evergreen itself, and whether the community can hang on to its proud traditions despite growth and suburbanization.
"The perfect storm for Evergreen Fire/Rescue was this board, Joel Janov and money," says Julie Kling, one of the BEST organizers, whose husband, George, recently resigned from the volunteers. "When we had all three is when we started having problems."
There are more than 26,000 fire departments in America. Three-fourths of them are small operations staffed by volunteers. But as communities grow — along with demands for more services, more training, higher professional standards and so on — hundreds of departments have turned to paid firefighters or some combination of volunteer and compensated staff. According to the International Association of Fire Chiefs' 2005 "Red Ribbon Report," a document that became a touchstone for the changes that Joel Janov wanted to make in Evergreen, the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has declined by 10 percent in the past two decades.
Evergreen Fire/Rescue began as a hardy squad of volunteers established in 1948 to serve a rustic mountain town of 500 residents. Since then, Evergreen has grown into a burgeoning community of 40,000, and EFR has swelled to an organization encompassing close to ninety volunteers, 33 full-time paid staffers (including shifts of four paramedics), a dozen part-timers, eight stations, 43 pieces of fire-and-rescue apparatus and an annual budget pushing $4 million.
The fire district covers 125 square miles of rugged country southwest of Denver, and it's difficult to imagine how it could be covered without volunteers. More than half of the service area has no hydrants, and even supposedly minor fires can require an unusual number of bodies and apparatus, including pumpers and tankers. Under a volunteer-based neighborhood-response system, firefighters often come from their homes rather than a station miles away. Fortunately, the operation has never lacked for qualified volunteers, including a number of local residents who also commute to jobs as paid firefighters in metro Denver when they're not responding to emergencies next door.
Traditionally, the volunteers elected their own chief. The chief would select the officers he wanted to serve in key positions, whose qualifications would be reviewed by a board of representatives elected by the volunteers, and the officers would then be affirmed by a popular vote of the membership. The chief would also go to the publicly elected fire-district board to seek whatever funds were necessary for new equipment. Department veterans acknowledge that as the paid side of the operation grew in recent years, the system was getting unwieldy, but few saw the need for any drastic overhaul.
"A problem was created to further a cause," says Jim Pidcock, a former assistant chief and ally of Neppell who resigned two months ago. "I didn't see what the hurry was to change things. Did the community decide? Are there justifiable numbers to show it needs to change?"
Yet most volunteers recognized that the operation had to be modernized to some degree. When Janov ran for the position of volunteer chief four years ago, he issued a "prospectus" declaring that the department had to be "open" to change, "the kind of change that keeps up with the times, technology, and our people." Janov had been with the department since 1996 and had also worked for four years as a paid firefighter for West Metro. Some of his colleagues describe him as bright and charismatic; others consider him abrasive and lacking in tact, but honest — sometimes to a fault. He was, in any case, eager to work hard at a job few people sought. In Evergreen, the office of volunteer chief often went to a firefighter who was already getting paid by another department, because nobody else had the time for it.
Pledging to improve the volunteers' relationship with the district board and its own leadership, Janov became the volunteer chief in 2004 and was re-elected in 2005. He embarked on a months-long study of the department, assembling an Organizational Effectiveness Team (OET) that met regularly with an outside consulting firm to discuss long-smoldering problems with its management structure.
There was plenty to discuss. The volunteer chief had no direct control over Evergreen Fire/Rescue's emergency medical services, even though EMS was involved in answering most calls. A paid district administrator supervised EMS and several other divisions, and each division had its own set of not-always compatible rules and procedures; the administrator and Janov were known to butt heads over various issues. In fact, the volunteer chief had control over only 11 percent of the budget of the organization he supposedly led.
The more the OET team studied the issue, the more inescapable the conclusion became: What this two-headed monster needed was a single leader, a paid chief overseeing both paid staff and volunteers. It was a logical transition to make, but not everyone was prepared to accept it. A paid chief had been tried before, in the late 1980s, without any particular success. When he campaigned to become the volunteer chief, Janov himself had expressed skepticism about a paid leader: "The volunteer system is essential to providing the high level of service the citizens of Evergreen have come to expect," he wrote in one campaign tract. "I believe it would take significant changes in the [department] and/or the community to justify this idea."
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."
The stage was set for clashes between the volunteers and the paid chief early in 2006, when Janov failed to get enough votes to change the Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department bylaws so that the paid chief would become the volunteers' "head line officer." Instead, the volunteers elected their own "operations chief," Evan Soibelman, setting up a dual system reminiscent of what Janov had faced as the volunteer chief dealing with a paid district administrator. (Soibelman didn't respond to a request for comment, nor did the president of the volunteers' elected board, Keith Haugrud. Several department veterans did speak to Westword about leadership issues but asked that their names not be used, out of concerns about retaliation.)
In the months that followed, skirmishes over operational questions between the volunteers and the chief, backed by the district board, became commonplace. At one point the two sides hammered out a "memorandum of agreement" addressing their respective responsibilities that appeared to be sufficiently vague to satisfy everybody; it acknowledged that the district board had ultimate authority over operating procedures, but the development of policies "governing fire operations, rescue and EMS by Volunteers, consistent with this goal shall be the responsibility of the Fire Operations Chief...under the direction of the Fire Chief." Still, what those words actually meant soon became the subject of a flurry of letters between board president Shanley, volunteer president Haugrud and others.
Many of the disputes boiled down to a couple of basic issues. Janov insisted that the chief had to be in charge of selecting officers, without the approval of the volunteer membership. To do otherwise, he suggested, was to leave open the possibility that the volunteers would elect their less-qualified but popular buddies to run things — a strange argument, perhaps, given that Janov himself had been the beneficiary of the popular vote, and one utterly rejected by most volunteers.
"Our people don't want to be led by somebody's buddy," one veteran says. "Their lives are at stake. They want the most qualified people. The board should have gone to the senior officers in the department for a reality check on what Joel was saying."
But Janov isn't impressed by assertions that the volunteers' chosen officers are the most qualified people. "Those are self-proclamations," he snaps. "Measured by whom? Who gets to decide what the minimum standards are?"
A related sore point involved Janov's efforts to revise standard operating procedures and make them consistent across divisions. The fire-district board and the chief are ultimately responsible for setting and maintaining standards, he points out, but the volunteers weren't eager to see the process turned over to elected officials who'd never fought a fire.
"That's important stuff, like how many people you send in on the hose line," notes Neppell. Yet even he concedes there might have been less fuss over altering bylaws and SOPs if the volunteers had had more confidence in the man who was leading them. Janov's my-way-or-the-highway style had alienated many former supporters, and there was a perception that the district board itself was no longer approachable, that they'd bought into Janov's crusade too deeply to change course.
"One of the boardmembers told my husband that he didn't have the right to an opinion because he hadn't lived here long enough," says Julie Kling. "The volunteers were totally stonewalled by the board. But they're elected officials. They should have to listen to any citizen who has an opinion."
By last fall, the internal squabbling had become serious enough that the board decided to conduct a survey of employee attitudes. The survey itself quickly became a matter of controversy. The announced results only gave general scores on job performance, working conditions and other broad categories, with "communication" and "climate" rating poorly. The volunteers' views on their chief were neatly cloaked in a largely neutral score on leadership matters. Narrative answers that the respondents were encouraged to provide weren't released at all, and some critics considered that another broken promise by the board.
"On the cover of the survey, it said those answers would be released verbatim. They never were," says Neppell, who was unable to obtain the raw data through an open-records request.
Putting together the OET white paper had required the services of one team of outside experts, and the survey brought in another. Janov's critics maintained that the department was now under siege by a plague of consultants, chewing through the budget like weevils in a boll of cotton. Some of the professionals — a financial-services firm charging $4,200 a month, a human-resources consultant billing around $5,000 a month — represented a kind of outsourcing; Janov says they provided a degree of expertise the department wouldn't get from a salaried employee.
But other consulting services were a bit unusual for an organization the size of Evergreen Fire/Rescue. The district shelled out $4,500 for Janov and a boardmember to attend a three-day seminar in conflict resolution and communication skills. It went on to pay the manager of a Castle Rock consulting firm $200 an hour to coach Janov and others on various niceties, including "effective behaviors and words," as they sought to ease the transition and resolve tensions; in the first four months of 2007, payments to that consultant alone topped $18,000. After some unflattering articles about the turmoil in the fire department ran in the Canyon Courier, the board also decided to retain the services of Peter Webb Public Relations for six months, at a cost of up to $5,000 per month. Soon consultants were billing the district for phone conferences with other consultants to work out a unified approach to the district's mushrooming interpersonal issues.
Janov defends tapping outside expertise to get the job done. "Any resemblance to any degree of professional business practice is seen as a threat by some," he says. "Why would any organization want to leave it to the uninformed masses to make decisions about conducting surveys when you have people out there with tremendous experience to help guide us?"
Jim Licko of Webb Public Relations says that the district has only a part-time public information officer and needed help getting its message out. "We're helping them out with an internal and external newsletter," he explains. "We're doing question-and-answer sessions with them, scheduling speaking opportunities with homeowner association boards and PTAs and things like that. It's pretty simple stuff."
Shanley readily defends the decision to bring in outsiders to help the board with "personnel matters" and communications. "We're all volunteers as well," he points out. "These professionals can do things neither the staff nor the board is capable of doing. I certainly couldn't write a newsletter."
While the board and the chief worked on a joint communication strategy, the volunteers could reach no consensus on how to proceed. Some wanted to handle the conflict in-house, if possible. Others were eager to go public, with the aim of enlisting citizens' support for a change of direction. Last fall, Pidcock and Neppell ran afoul of their colleagues over their scathing criticism of the chief; Pidcock, for example, had fired off an e-mail to the bylaw committee denouncing Janov as "a man who has created a job for himself through lies, printed jargon, scare tactics, political positioning and biased consulting groups."
Janov and the district board reportedly wanted to terminate Pidcock and Neppell, but they had no direct power to fire them. The volunteer leadership decided to suspend them instead. Undeterred, Neppell and Pidcock, along with volunteer George Kling, founded BEST, a recall committee targeting Janov's supporters on the district board. Neppell says the effort didn't get off the ground last fall because the volunteer leadership kept urging him to hold off. "Unfortunately, we've got some leaders who will negotiate forever, and they thought we should give [Janov] a chance," he says.
Most of the volunteers weren't keen on airing their laundry outside the firehouse, but it's clear they shared BEST's dismal opinion of the chief. In November, 79 percent of the membership voted no confidence in Chief Janov; a no-confidence vote on the district board tallied 84 percent. It was a clear rebuke of the reorganization effort — and an indicator of how low morale had become.
The no-confidence vote, coupled with the threat of a recall campaign, apparently caught the board's attention. Three weeks later, on December 18, Shanley announced that the board was beginning a national search for a new, full-time paid fire chief. Janov would remain in charge during the transition, however long that would be. A "transition services letter" dated December 28, signed by Janov and Shanley and recently obtained by Westword, states that the arrangement would end if the chief or the board "finds that the situation with the volunteers begins to deteriorate to a level that is no longer workable." It also states that Janov would no longer be involved in "strategic planning and other long-term goals."
Keeping Janov on the job in a limited fashion was another misstep by the board, says George Goldbach, a former chief of Denver's West Metro Fire Rescue. Goldbach, who has 45 years of experience in fire services, was brought in by the district last fall to help negotiate an end to the impasse with the volunteers; he quit two months ago, he says, frustrated with delays in the search for a new chief and disagreements with the board's management consultants. "Their consultants knew nothing about the fire service," he says. "You really have to know about it or have been in it to deal with the issues something like this presents."
Janov managed to stay on the job another four months — longer, it turned out, than the members of BEST. In March, as the chief's critics continued to press their case in letters to the editor, Pidcock and Neppell found themselves suspended again, along with Kling. Pidcock and Kling decided to resign from the department. Neppell was terminated over a letter to the Canyon Courier that was never published.
Part of the damage done by the turmoil of the past year, Neppell suggests, is the way the conflict has chilled discourse among the volunteers. "We used to have great e-mail exchanges on everything in the department," he says. "That all stopped. Most of the officer meetings were taken up with political issues, this guy and his agenda. It used to be we talked about how to best fight fires."
Phil Shanley believes the so-called bad blood between the board and the volunteers comes down to a series of misunderstandings, many of them semantic in nature. All the loose talk about transitions and how a "combination" department should run gave folks the impression that Evergreen Fire/Rescue might some day bring in paid firefighters to take the place of the volunteers, and that was never the board's intention, he insists.
"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.
"It was clear to me that it was time for me to leave," he says. "I'm disappointed, to some extent, that I didn't get to see it through to the end. But I think it was time, and hopefully, it will help this transition."
On that, Janov and Neppell finally agree. "The next chief is going to have a very easy job," Neppell predicts. "Everyone is going to want him to succeed. And if he has leadership ability, it's going to be an easy situation for him."
But leadership ability depends on others' inclination to follow. And as Chief Janov discovered, a commander of volunteers has the power his people allow him to have, and no more.
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