Petersburg is revising the local law that spells out the structure and responsibilities of the fire department, including the paid staff and the volunteers who respond to fires, medical emergencies and searches. Petersburg’s Public Safety Advisory Board voted last week to forward a proposed draft of the city’s ordinance to the city council for consideration.
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The proposed ordinance seeks to clarify who’s in charge of what in a department made up of two full time city employees and a force of local residents who volunteer their time to train and respond to emergencies.
Department member William Bergmann talked about the proposed ordinance with the public safety board. He said the city manager offered draft language and volunteer members made revisions. “This was mostly at the insistence of the city manager,” Bergmann said. He wanted to have more authority, I mean this is sort of about control, but more authority over the department coming from the administrative side. So he wanted to have Sandy over the fire chief, our chief Jerrod Cook. Of course this was very controversial within the department. After being in the fire department for 35 plus years, the chief is the chief and there’s no, just like chief Agner, and there’s no one else who should be supervising. So this was, like I said, very controversial.”
Sandy Dixson is the city’s fire and EMS director and is head of the city department. The proposed ordinance makes the department head supervisor of the paid employees as well as the volunteer chief. Bergmann explained that the ordinance would also change how the chief is selected after volunteer members vote for a chief. “This is the first big change. The fire chief shall be elected by active volunteer members and approved by the department director and the city manager. In the past the fire chief was just approved by the city manager,” he said.
The ordinance also clarifies that volunteers, like the paid staff can be dismissed from the department for just cause. The draft gives the department director and volunteer chief joint responsibility for supervision of the volunteers. The city’s police chief is concerned with the conduct of the volunteers. Jim Agner said he was addressing the board as a private citizen and talked about unsubstantiated rumors of drinking and sex among the department members on city property and during calls.
Agner thought the ordinance should make clear a chain of command. “This needs to be something that stands the test of time regardless of who the personalities are,” he said “And it needs to take the proper precautions to protect the city from inappropriate behavior from volunteers.”
Volunteer department members responded to Agner’s concerns. “I don’t wanna hear supposition. He’s the police chief. If he’s not going to arrest someone for drunken driving, then as far as I’m concerned it’s not happening,” Bergmann said. “Because his officers aren’t doing it. I mean I drive the fire truck very, very frequently. I have never seen anyone drive a fire truck that’s intoxicated. If they are they should be arrested.”
Another department member Doug Welde pointed out the draft ordinance puts most of the control of the department in the hands of the paid, city department head. He called that change a tough pill for the volunteer force to swallow and thought the department is trying to make changes. “We of course are aware of the goings on that have been addressed and what has brought this ordinance to light. And we are terribly embarrassed and ashamed that it came to point for a whole bunch or reasons. We’re trying to deal with it,” Welde said.
Board member Sally Dwyer said she’s heard the rumors and think they’ve eroded the public trust of the department. “There’s just a public perception that it’s just a boys club with a few girls hanging around. And so I like that you guys are trying to clean up things and get it back on track. And personally I can go on a limb and say I would recommend that this would go on to council,” Dwyer said.
The board voted 3-0 to send the draft ordinance onto the city council for consideration.