Boone County, Mo. Chief Faces Critics Head On

The chief says that his job and the fire district's image are intact despite the seemingly endless controversy swirling around him.

Moen also said some of his other six clients are awaiting right-to-sue letters from the EEOC before filing similar federal suits.

"With the FBI investigating them and the financial stuff, these things just keep occurring," Brown said. "It's going to be harder to blame it on people like us when we've been gone for so long."

Better than ever

In spite of the controversies, fire district personnel insist that their primary mission -- responding to structural fires --is being accomplished. They say they're doing a better job than ever.

Blomenkamp, a three-year veteran of the department who also came to Columbia from Castle Rock, Colo., said the department was once so fractured that some volunteers would turn around after heading to a reported fire or medical emergency because they felt uncomfortable working with certain volunteers at a scene.

"It's a re-energized organization now," Blomenkamp said. "Three years ago, it wasn't what it should be. There was a definite split. It was not a comfortable situation. You would go to a fire scene and you could just feel the tension. It was almost like there was a fear of stepping out of bounds."

Fire district leaders say response times have improved as have the district's relationships with other city and county emergency services, such as the Boone Hospital Center Ambulance system.

"That group basically destroyed our relationships with other law enforcement, ambulance services and mutual aid agencies," said Assistant Chief Scott Olsen. "They would send out these mandates, and the other agencies wouldn't work together. They were too dictatorial. Now, those relationships are healing."

In interviews for this article -- most of them arranged by Blomenkamp, the district's media liaison -- volunteers express deep loyalty to Paulsell and some frustration with the district's public image.

"You can feel detached sometimes, with everything that goes on in Columbia," said Greg Rush, a longtime volunteer fire captain with the district's Sturgeon station. "But we get mad. We're loyal to the chief, and we're doing a good job where it counts -- on the ground."

Record recruitment numbers for the fire district back up Rush's statement, especially when volunteer agencies across the nation struggle to recruit enough volunteers. The fire district swore in 28 new volunteers last month, its largest semi-annual recruitment class in recent history.

The district is adept at getting out that kind of news and other positive press -- especially about the high-profile deployments of Task Force I, most recently to New Orleans post-Katrina. Paulsell is media-savvy and a compulsive networker.

The chief has powerful friends who have lauded the fire district and showered the agency with federal grants and commendations. U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., calls Paulsell a personal ally and campaign finance records show the chief has regularly contributed money to state legislators and politicians, including Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

He's professionally well-connected, too.

He taught classes for the U.S. State Department in Turkey, testified on Capitol Hill before a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee for federally funding fire programs and is heavily involved with Missouri's emergency response programs. Paulsell is also the chairman of the Missouri Fire Service Alliance, an influential lobbying group in Jefferson City.

"He's a very good lobbyist," Brown said. "He has tremendous resources that he can bring in."

Such powerful friends have been handy, said Castrop, a leader of the now-defunct county group that tried to recall the district's elected board. They have helped the chief expand the department into one of the largest of its kind in the country.

"That's his strength," Castrop said. "He gets along well with our political people. You have to give him credit for that and what he has done for the district."

Pat Barnes, one of the fire district's founders and the agency's highest-ranking volunteer, said Paulsell's critics were a "disgruntled few who used the media to their advantage."