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Colo. volunteers protest over chief's role - 4/26/2007

By Deborah Frazier
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
Copyright 2007 Denver Publishing Company 
 
EVERGREEN, Colo. The mountain wildfire season hasn't started, but tempers are smoldering in Colorado's largest volunteer fire department.

Evergreen Fire/Rescue has 85 highly trained, but unpaid, men and women who spend up to 90 hours a month fighting fires and performing rescues across a 120-square-mile territory.

That system, which has protected homes and businesses in the Evergreen area for 58 years, is changing and some volunteers are balking. They have voted no confidence in the chief and threatened to recall the board that hired him.

"We're shifting from taking our orders from people who worked on the line to getting orders from people who don't have firefighting experience. Those people will be making the decisions that affect our survival," said Charlie Neppell, a former volunteer who said he and three others were suspended for speaking out.

The conflict ignited when the volunteer fire chief, Joel Janov, was hired for a newly created and paid fire chief position that started Jan. 1, 2006.

Before then, Janov was elected twice by the volunteers to the unpaid chief's position overseeing fire operations and volunteers.

The new job pays $95,000 a year and gives Janov command authority over the fire, rescue, emergency services and other divisions.

"It was time for an adjustment," said Janov, who was hired by the board of the Evergreen Fire Protection District.

Janov worked with the board to reorganize the district's structure and centralize decision making, which has curtailed the volunteers' authority.

"The struggle is that the volunteer fire department has a history of autonomy," Janov said, adding that volunteer departments in other fast-growing areas face the same conflicts.

Neppell, who with other dissident firefighters formed Best Emergency Services Transition for Evergreen (BEST) to voice the concerns of the volunteers, said autonomy isn't the issue.

The board gave Janov the job although he didn't meet the qualifications recommended by the volunteers based on a survey of 34 comparably sized departments. Among the qualifications:

* Up to 10 years of fire management and command experience.

* Extensive firefighting credentials that match those that of the volunteer commanders.

* A college degree in fire science, administration or a related field.

"The fire department spent a year working with the board on the qualifications and the board, in the end, ignored them," Neppell said.

Janov, who worked at West Metro Fire Rescue from 1998 to 2001, joined the volunteer Evergreen Fire Department in 1996. He served as a captain, but not as chief officer.

"Ninety percent of the job is mostly paperwork," said Janov, who has let most of his firefighter certifications lapse because of the job change.

He studied mechanical engineering for three years and is working on an undergraduate degree in administration.

"There isn't a fire station that you can go into at lunch and not hear complaints about the chief," Janov said.

The board responded to complaints by surveying volunteers about Janov's leadership, said Einar Jensen, Evergreen Fire/Rescue's spokesman. It did not release survey results, he said.

In November, about 60 volunteers took part in a "no confidence" vote that showed 79 percent against Janov and 84 percent against the board, Neppell said.

"My lack of popularity comes from my choice to be responsible to the board," Janov said. "I want to be respected by the volunteers, but my overall responsibility is to the board."

After BEST and volunteers talked about recalling the board, the board asked Janov to resign in December, less than a year after he started, said Jensen.

Janov was asked to continue in the position until a replacement is found. The human resources firm hired by the board hasn't yet advertised the position.

The search firm, CPS Human Services, is one of several consultants, including a communications firm, hired by the board this year to improve the situation.

BEST and some volunteers may resume the recall effort, Neppell said.

The board is completing a handbook for volunteers that takes away most decision making from the firefighters, including staffing levels at fires and standard operating procedures, he said.

"The board's current direction is building a bureaucracy at the expense of fighting fires and doing rescues," said George Kling, one of the suspended firefighters.

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