Official: Public not at risk over rancor in Edgerton Fire Department

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Neil Johnson
Friday, May 23, 2014

EDGERTON—Rancor within the Edgerton Fire Department has caused a glut of members to walk away from volunteer fundraising and other public outreach.

The fact that 16 firefighters have quit volunteer duties in the past few months hasn't put the public at risk, a department official said.

Deputy Chief Ryan Beckwith said the resignations affect the department's volunteer duties—an offshoot of the department that conducts public relations and public services. These include education outreach and fundraising for equipment bought outside the department's taxpayer-supported budget.

Fire department members who quit volunteer service activities still are showing up for active duty—fire and ambulance calls—and none have resigned from operational duties, Beckwith said.

Local media outlets have reported 16 firefighters of the department's 42-member association have resigned.

“From the outside, it's been a confusion," Beckwith said. "You think, 'Is anybody going to be at calls or at a fire? It looks like half the department has quit. But you drive by and they're still there at the station. You think, hey, I thought these people quit.”

“That's not the case. Response-wise, we have exactly the same staffing as we did before.”

The department's existing ranks include:

-- 20 firefighters. Eleven are either emergency medical technicians.

-- 13 emergency medical technicians.

-- Eight officers. All are trained as firefighters, emergency medical technicians or first responders.

-- Three interns. All are training as firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

All those members “still make their shift calls and response requirements,” Beckwith said. He said the department has not had to pull in mutual aid to deal with staff shortfalls since the volunteer resignations.

Part of any public confusion, Beckwith said, might be that people are unaware the department has changed some of its membership rules. Until about two years ago, the department's volunteer members were required to take part in fundraising and educational outreach efforts or they could not be active duty members.

That policy is no longer in place, Beckwith said.

“There is no 'volunteer' in volunteer firefighting here anymore,” Beckwith said. “All of our members either work here (full-time) or they're paid on-call.”

The 16 who resigned volunteer duties did so at or around the time of two controversies.

One involved a complaint filed about a fire department member. The fire commission, the department's governing body, later dismissed the complaint in part because of a paperwork error.

The other controversy stemmed from a disagreement over the department's association voting to buy a rescue airboat earlier in the year. The disagreement was tied to how the department handled $11,900 in state money for fire protection.

Under state law, the money was supposed to be deposited in the fire district's accounts. The state is auditing the fire district because the department apparently placed the money in the firefighters association account, officials said.

The association is registered as a private, nonprofit group.  

Evan Sayre, a member of the fire commission, offered his opinion of the audit issue. He said he believes there was no “mal intent” by the department in how it handled the state money.

“Somebody checked the wrong box on a form. That means this gets an audit,” Sayre said. “It also means they'll probably fill the form out properly next time.”

The bigger question is about the department's ability to continue to raise funds outside its budget for ongoing equipment needs.

Beckwith, who is one of the 16 who resigned from volunteer duties, acknowledged fence-mending is needed within the department. He said no one can say for sure why each member resigned or whether all resignations were linked to either the complaint against a firefighter or the way the boat purchase was handled.

“There may have been different reasons,” he said, pointing to stringent rules the department has in place for membership in active duty fire calls. He said volunteer and fundraising duties can add “a lot” to that burden. 

Sayre said he's been a fire district commissioner for years, and he can't quite get to the bottom of “quasi-political” machinations he feels are hampering the department's public service and fundraising arm.

“And it's very unfortunate," Sayre said. "It's been such a worthwhile and such a good organization for years and years, and it's worked well. Hopefully, time has a great way of healing things. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.”

Last updated: 5:24 pm Friday, May 23, 2014

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