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Teller County volunteer fire district trying to leave conflict behind

July 22, 2017 Updated: July 22, 2017 at 9:29 pm
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Chief Jack Lowe, who started last week at the Four Mile Fire Protection District, poses for a portrai Friday, July 21, 2017. Photo by James Wooldridge, The Gazette

For the first time in weeks, residents of a southwest Teller County fire protection district were able to attend a meeting at the agency on Wednesday without being frisked by sheriff's deputies at the door.

The gathering marked the Four Mile Fire Protection District's inaugural meeting with its new chief, chosen by the Board of Directors last month to serve roughly 2,500 property owners south of Florissant who've been without a local fire district since the past chief was fired in April.

The former chief's termination, a culmination of months of conflict between directors and staff, prompted the district's entire force of more than 20 volunteer firefighters to resign in protest.

After board members began receiving physical threats, meeting attendees were required to hand in their guns before taking their seats. Wednesday was a welcome change from previous meetings, punctuated by tense exchanges and heated outbursts.

"We're going to be going onward and upward. That's what I can tell you. Whatever happened, in my opinion, is behind us," Chief Jack Lowe, who started July 10, told roughly two dozen attendees. "We're here for you, and hopefully you're here for us."

He's not sure when the district will be fully functional. Since the previous chief's departure, nearby firefighting agencies have responded to calls in the district. Residents say some property owners have lost insurance in the interim. The district, which takes in more than $150,000 from local taxpayers each year, responded to eight calls in March, the last month it was operational.

While the board said the former chief, Tom Hatton, was terminated due to performance issues, Hatton's supporters say directors treated him unfairly and fired him without cause. Hatton and the district's previous assistant chief, also a target of the board's criticism, are likely to pursue legal recourse against the directors, Hatton said in an interview.

A long way to go

Lowe, who most recently worked as a lieutenant and fire marshal for Georgetown County, S.C., faces rebuilding the district's force and restoring a station in disarray.

As of Friday, the district had received applications from three prospective volunteers. Lowe said he expects others who have been helping out at the station in recent weeks will also join.

The former chief did not leave behind a single record - paper or electronic - although Lowe said he hopes to recover some information when the district renews its subscription to a digital reporting system.

While "before" and "after" photographs, now posted on a wall at the station, show that community members have helped to clear much of the junk that crowded the facility during Hatton's tenure, some debris remains. A mice-infested trailer and dilapidated training tower sit behind the building, which is nearing the end of its lease.

The district's two engines have defects that might cost hundreds to fix, Lowe said. He found that much of the station's equipment, including breathing apparatus and other protective gear, hadn't been replaced or tested in accordance with standards of the National Fire Protection Association. An audit that was commissioned by the board after Hatton's departure found similar lapses.

Lowe said he also learned from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control that the past chief failed to file years of annual reports that allow districts to qualify for federal funding.

"It's been quite an eye-opener, I will say," said Lowe, who acknowledged he knew of some of the district's problems, but wasn't aware of the full extent of the disorder. "I'm up for a challenge."

Question of leadership

Some say the district's issues stem from its governing body.

In November, firefighters asked two of the directors to resign. Both stepped down, but were later reappointed. Two more board members resigned and were replaced in the spring.

Joseph Reno, a paramedic who volunteered under Hatton, said he likely won't return to the district with the current board in office. For the new chief, it will be an "uphill battle," he said.

"He's walking into a hornet's nest without any protection," Reno said. "I think, for the best interest of the citizens, that the board needs to step down."

All five of the board's current members are appointed. The past three elections were canceled in accordance with a state law that allows unopposed candidates to be declared elected without a vote to save taxpayer money. The next election is scheduled for May 2018.

"The board has never been given a fair shake," said Jean Webb, who was appointed board secretary in December. "The board has always sought to protect the community."

Others have praised the decision to fire Hatton.

"When we first started coming to the meetings, we were skeptical. We didn't know what side to believe," said district resident Jacqui Stanley after Wednesday's meeting. "So much had not been done in a timely manner. I believe (the board) did the right thing."

The board has asserted that Hatton failed to purchase new radios and firefighter gear, although the former chief contended he was testing equipment before purchasing it. Webb added that the former chief could not prove that firefighters had the proper certifications to administer basic medical care, such as CPR, and was uncooperative with the local EMS Council's medical director, who reportedly threatened to pull the district's medical equipment in frustration.

Hatton and others have accused Webb and her fellow directors of disrespecting volunteers and violating meeting protocols and other state rules governing special districts.

"There were a number of things they did that were wholly inappropriate, outside of the bounds of their duties as the board," Hatton said.

After his firing, the board passed a resolution that indemnifies directors from claims "arising from acts or omissions occurring during the performance of their governmental duties" and states that the district will pay the legal fees to defend such allegations. The measure was suggested by the board's legal counsel, Webb said.

Critics of the board say volunteers won't return as long as the current directors are in office.

"Nobody is going back that I know of," said Greg Wilkins, who served as a captain under Hatton. "They're going to have to start from scratch."

As of Thursday, Cripple Creek Fire Department had responded to 19 calls in the district, the majority of them medical, since Hatton's termination. Florissant Fire Rescue has handled at least three calls, all medical, the neighboring district's board reported in mid-June.

Last week, the Four Mile district mailed out more than 250 fliers to area residents, Chief Lowe said. He's planned an organizational meeting with applicants for August 8. Once the district has rounded up a group of volunteers, everyone will undergo a 36-hour basic training course.

"Onward and upward," he said. "Baby steps, though."

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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