Falcon Fire Department tries to rise above months of turmoil

By Andrea Sinclair Published: August 15, 2013 | 7:15 pm 0

It's back to business at the Falcon Fire Department, despite weeks of disruption and recent resignations.

Its fire chief and two battalion chiefs were unanimously reinstated in late June after two months of administrative leave, despite a vote of no confidence from more than half of the department's career firefighters.

Fire Chief Trent Harwig, Battalion Chief Jeff Petersma and former Battalion Chief Cory Gacilia were placed on leave April 24, citing an investigation over unspecified personnel issues. Citing privacy laws, board secretary Greg Heule said he was prohibited from releasing details about the investigation, conducted by Mountain States Employers Council, a firm from Denver.

The Black Forest fire broke out June 11 and Falcon fire crews, led by former Deputy Chief Glen Levy, battled the inferno for two weeks, without Harwig, Petersma and Galicia.

On June 19, less than a week after the conclusion of the Black Forest Fire, the investigation ended. The board convened in an open session and unanimously reinstated the three men, who returned to their posts June 24.

The Gazette asked board president David Kelly Starkman on July 1 for information regarding the investigation's results and the reinstatement. Starkman responded through email, providing a statement prepared by the board's attorney, Richard L. Shearer, from its June 19 open session.

"The Board also advised the public that any action as to Battalion Chiefs Petersma and Galicia would be taken by Fire Chief Harwig, who will consider recommendations by Deputy Chief Levy," the statement read. "Accordingly, the board of the district respectfully requests that the media and all other persons refrain from seeking any additional information concerning these personnel matters."

Shearer rejected a request from The Gazette made under the Colorado Open Records Act, saying the investigation reports by Mountain States were not public records and were not subject to inspection or disclosure because they constituted "work product."

A second Open Records Request sent July 10 was partially rejected by the board's attorney, once again citing confidential "work product."

On July 19, Shearer provided 37 supplemental pages of correspondence between employees of Mountain States and Heule that detailed the contract the firm and the board entered into, vague information on the investigation and how much they paid for all of it: $35,862.43.

The district paid Mountain States $3,124.93 for a one-year membership, with the goal of obtaining a lower rate for investigation and to receive consulting and training services the firm offers, the documents show.

The Gazette also obtained a May 28 letter signed by "the employees of the Falcon Fire Department" that was addressed to the board of directors. In it, the Falcon firefighters expressed discontent with the three chiefs' leadership, pleading with the board to not reinstate them.

"At this time we extend to you our official vote of No Confidence against Fire Chief Trent Harwig, Battalion Chief Jeff Petersma and Battalion Chief Galicia," the letter read. "The lack of communication, leadership and management... and the continuation of harassment, retaliation, favoritism and hostility... is unwarranted and no longer wanted."

Heule confirmed he and all five members of the board received the letter, which 14 of the department's 24 full-time career firefighters signed.

"I tried to enter that letter into the public record, but at the advice of the board's legal counsel, it was not entered," Heule said Thursday. "The fact that all those people signed the letter, that says a lot. Those folks were willing to put their names on it, knowing that the board would see them. They felt strongly enough to make that statement."

Heule described the morale amongst the Falcon firefighters as very high during the administrative leave and noted a clear change following reinstatement.

"My impression is that they are disconcerted and disoriented," Heule said. "I'm disappointed that the circumstances have turned out the way they have for the department."

The rise in morale at Falcon FD was noted in the letter, citing a shift toward unity across all crews and shifts.

"Since the suspension of the three individuals, our department has experienced a 180-degree change for the better... a renewed commitment and atmosphere of respect and kindness that is completely new to this organization."

Since resuming his post, Harwig said the morale has been higher and positive improvements have been made, but internal turmoil was immediately obvious.

Upon Levy's recommendation, Harwig demoted Galicia to firefighter from battalion chief. Galicia resigned from the department after 18 years, leaving July 24. On the same day, Levy submitted his resignation and has since left.

In an interview, Galicia said the allegations that prompted the administrative leave and consequent investigation were unfounded.

"They didn't like the way we ran the department because all they wanted to do was sit on recliners all day and get paid for it," he said. "We just tried to run the department according to the expectations of the voters."

Harwig's decision to demote him from battalion chief was handed down without notice, according to Galicia.

"I was given no indication of anything and no explanation, then after 10 weeks they finally told me that I had a dictator management style and it wasn't what the district and the union members were looking for," he said. "I was unhappy with the politics and it wasn't an environment I wanted to work in any more."

Still, Harwig, who's held the position of fire chief for more than 10 years, insisted things are looking up, and said he had never been made aware of the no-confidence letter.

"I am doing things differently, especially in the way we communicate amongst all ranks," Harwig said. "I couldn't be prouder of the way that everyone in the department has progressed after all we've been through."

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