Ohio Town Disbands Dysfunctional Fire Department

An Ohio village disbanded its fire department indefinitely after both the mayor and an independent report determined it dysfunctional.

Last week, the Glendale Council voted unanimously to temporarily disband the Glendale Fire Department after reviewing an independent consultant's report critical of the department and recommending major changes.

The village council determined that a disorganized department presents too great a liability to keep functional.

"There was informal leadership coming up through the department which conflicted with the formal leadership of the appointed chief," Glendale Administrator Walter Cordes said of the largely volunteer department. "There were concerns that orders may or may not be followed at an emergency scene."

In addition to a chain-of-command conflict, the report also cites problems with staffing, recruitment, retention, budget limits and "turf" disputes with neighboring departments.

"If only cost is considered, the simple choice is to disband the fire department and contract with [a neighboring department]," the report states.

However, the report acknowledges that the council must balance the firefighters' strong emotional attachment to the department with budgetary concerns.

Furthermore, the report suggests that last year a faction of firefighters started what amounts to a "character assassination" campaign against the fire chief after the village administration announced it was considering, among other options, disbanding the department and contracting with a neighboring department.

The report goes further in stating that those firefighters wanted to promote a chief from within their ranks and, partly because of that desire, accused Chief Donald Latta of conspiring with the village to disband the fire department with the ultimate goal of becoming fire marshal under a new fire service structure.

One firefighter, who the report characterized as the faction's leader, said the problems cited by the report are greatly exaggerated.

"He was pretty liberal with his assumptions," assistant chief Thomas Benjamin said of the consultant who wrote the report.

Benjamin, who had been with the department since 1989, said that the staffing problems and safety issues the report identifies are overstated.

"Our staffing problems are really not that big a deal," Benjamin said. He added that Latta tried to prove the department needed more firefighters by pointing out it wasn't meeting National Fire Protection Association minimum staffing standards of four firefighters working an internal structure fire.

"It's almost impossible to operate with less than four people" because if there's any sign of a large fire, the automatic aid agreements with surrounding towns kicks in, Benjamin said.

Benjamin concedes that there had been recruitment problems.

"It is tough for us to do recruitment," Benjamin said.

Latta set a standard that volunteers live within four miles of the station. But the mainly white-collar workers who live within that radius have not shown much interest in volunteering, according to Benjamin. Additionally, about half of the village's residents are 45 and older and, as the report points out, that makes it difficult to find adequate volunteers.

While he agrees with the report that recruitment is difficult, Benjamin called false the report's claim that certain members would drive out new recruits who wouldn't conform to their opinions of leadership.

The report states: New candidates "who did not agree with the prevailing attitudes toward Chief Latta would be made to feel very uncomfortable within the organization and at times would be denied the opportunities to engage in active, interior fire fighting on working fires."

Last year, a group of firefighters sent a letter of no confidence to the village about Latta. The report describes the letter as highly critical of Latta's leadership and organizational skills.

While the report disagrees with several points the firefighters made about Latta, it does state that he "lacks some organizational skills and habits." Yet, the report notes that Latta's "position of postal clerk leaves him little time during the business day to complete the necessary and routine duties of a fire chief." (Latta did not respond to phone messages in time for this article.)

"Doesn't seem like [Latta] was going the extra mile for the fire department. ... guys were getting frustrated," Benjamin said. He also said that the report was wrong in suggesting the firefighters' problems with Latta started when the village announced the possibility of disbanding the department.

"The breakdown in command came after the letter of no confidence in July," Benjamin said.

But Benjamin also acknowledged that the firefighters were resentful when they found out Latta could remain chief if the village decided to keep the department, while he might be promoted to fire marshal if it disbanded.

Because of those possibilities a faction of firefighters accused Latta of conspiring with the village to get the department shut down, according to the report.

Benjamin said that he and other firefighters felt that on learning about the village's possible plans, the chief should have said, "'I have never seen this before, nobody's ever talked to me about becoming a fire marshal.'"

However, the report states: "Chief Latta professes no desire to disband the fire department and was not privy to the early discussions between Glendale and the communities from which proposals for contracts were solicited."

The report recommends two options for future village fire service: a joint operating agreement with a neighboring department in which the Glendale Fire Department re-forms; or, the department will remain disbanded, and the village contracts with a neighboring department.

"The internal issues cited above would have to be addressed before Glendale would be seen as an attractive joint partner," the report states in reference to the first option.

Additionally, a majority of village residents will have to agree to a tax hike to fund a re-engineered Glendale department.

A civilian-based task force will help decide the department's future. It is due to come to the council with a first report by June 2006. Until then, a neighboring fire department will handle all emergency calls.