By Jennifer Eisenbart
In a 2013 study, a consultant predicted there would be roadblocks built by pride and territory that would make for a difficult path to greater cooperation between the Burlington’s fire and rescue service providers.
It seems that prediction has come true as local officials and volunteers struggle to get past perceived slights and friction created by personality, autonomy and history.
Last September, the city and town of Burlington fire departments, as well as the Burlington Area Rescue Squad, received a 275-page study from McGrath Consulting detailing just how the three agencies should best work together.
Almost a year later, no one disagrees with the primary goal of the study – that the people all three groups serve should come first.
But in that same space of time, the fire department has lost a number of long-time volunteers, and changes have been made within the city fire department and area rescue squad that share space in the city firehouse on Washington Street.
As many acknowledged for this story, change is never easy – and changes to help the public should be made and need to be accepted.
The question is, however: What is the cost of those changes to relations between city fire and the Burlington Area Rescue Squad?
City Administrator Kevin Lahner said all involved need to look at the long view of the situation.
“It’s about preparing the city for the future,” he said. “Making sure that five years from now, 10 years from now, we have the level of service that we need.
“In the immediate time frame, it can look hard, and it is hard.”
Two separate squads
The City of Burlington Fire Department has five paid positions, funded by the city budget. Chief Perry Howard arrived as the city’s first full-time fire chief at the beginning of June 2013, and was handed the McGrath study last fall as a working map to having all three agencies – town and city fire, plus the rescue squad – work together. There are four other paid positions, with volunteers rounding out the city’s fire staff.
The township has a volunteer staff of on-call firefighters. Town of Burlington Fire Chief Ed Umnus declined to comment for this story, saying he was advised not to.
But the third part of the equation is the Burlington Area Rescue Squad. It is a private entity that operates with a staff of volunteers with support from Burlington Rotary Club. The squad is housed at the city firehouse and shares garage and office space. There have been members who have served as both fire and rescue squad personnel.
The study produced by McGrath stressed that all three departments would have to work in cooperation in the future – and that change would not be easy.
“The more closely the three departments work together, the group that benefits the most are the citizens and visitors of the greater Burlington area – those needing the service,” the McGrath study stated. “There are copious opportunities to improve emergency services and save money in Burlington, but there needs to be a willingness to move beyond some historical roadblocks, held closely to the heart of some of those who govern; and a general feeling of autonomy by many department members.”
At the time, everyone involved knew there would be challenges. And just last week, Lahner admitted that has been the case in recent months.
“There’s a lot of stuff we’re doing differently,” said Lahner, who added, “there’s personalities involved.”
But Lahner also said he was pleased with the number of volunteers who have jumped on board with the process – and that communication has, by and large, remained professional.
That said, there is significant friction among members of the rescue squad and the leadership of the city fire department.
“Whenever you’re implementing change in any way, some people will embrace it, and some will not,” Lahner said. “We’re going through that process.”
New chief, and conflict
At the heart of the changes is Howard, who has been tasked with the difficult challenge of getting departments that have traditionally worked separately to share everything from emergency scene space to responsibilities.
“We’re implementing changes,” said Lahner. “Some folks are more receptive than others.”
Howard declined to comment on the issue Tuesday night, wanting to sit down and address specifics rather than talking in general about the situation. He will be given that opportunity by the Standard Press in future stories.
However, others were less inhibited. A number of fire fighters who have “retired” in the last year were blunt in criticism of Howard, and there seemed to be many rescue squad members that took issue with his approach as well.
One of the retired firefighters, Tim Nelson, said he chose to retire rather than work with Howard, and said as much in his exit interview.
“Because of how he was handling some stuff,” said Nelson, who disagreed with Howard on some on-scene approaches during fires.
Nelson also said Howard has done things to help the department – naming the fact that more firefighters can do more on fire calls as an example. But, he said, the bad outweighed the good.
“I didn’t need that kind of stuff,” he explained.
A number of firefighters have left the department, though the number varies depending on whom you talk to. What isn’t disputed, though, is the experience lost as a result.
Alan Van Dusseldorp said the actual number of firefighters – and in some cases, rescue squad members – who have left is less important that the experience factor.
“Whether it’s 19, 15 or 10, it does not matter,” said Van Dusseldorp, who has more than 15 years in emergency medical service and is a licensed paramedic. “Look at the experience this city has lost. Our city leaders need to see this.”
Van Dusseldorp and his wife, Sara, were two of many to take issue with Howard personally.
Sara said she had worked with Howard at his previous job in Illinois.
“Then, Perry and I only had one problem,” she said. “He was very domineering. It was his way or no way.
Alan added, “He’s like a bull in a freaking china shop. He’s trying to make huge changes throughout.”
The rescue squad
Those changes aren’t coming easily – at least, not from the perspective of some within the rescue squad.
Many of the complaints aired in a variety of interviews touched on personality conflicts, which makes it hard to determine what is personality conflict and what is a genuine problem.
Brian Zwiebel, the head of the rescue squad, was guarded in his public comments.
“I have been trying to play nice and make things work,” he said. “The study says we’re supposed to be cooperating and working together.
“There is a big struggle with that right now.”
Three issues were raised by both Zwiebel and the Van Dusseldorps: the first responder program that rolled out earlier this year; a lack of communication, and; a lack of respect for privacy.
The first responder program was approved by the City Council earlier this year, but not without rescue raising concerns that Howard had not properly communicated with them about its inception.
The program has improved response times at EMS calls, and Zwiebel said the first responders are doing “a good job.”
But there is an added cost of rolling out the fire trucks to rescue calls in terms of gas and vehicle mileage. The trade-off, of course, is trained personnel arriving on scene faster.
“I’m not downplaying the first responders at all,” said Alan Van Dusseldorp. “But it’s costing the city.”
There are also concerns by the Van Dusseldorps and other rescue squad members that Howard may not be informing everyone of joint training opportunities, resulting in missed chances for fire and rescue to work together.
According to various rescue and fire personnel, Howard scheduled fire department training at the same time as a rescue training earlier this year – training that both departments could have benefited from.
Whether that was a slight or simply a logistical challenge remains to be seen. It does illustrate, however, how perception is framing the debate.
One thing all those who were interviewed maintained was that the people in the community matter the most.
“It doesn’t matter who has the biggest trucks or the best equipment,” former rescue/fire member Hayley Schneider said. “What matters is that the people are being taken care of.”
Lahner said that is happening, in spite of some of the disagreements between departments.
“I think we’re learning from each other as we implement changes,” the city administrator said. “There’s disagreements, there’s a little bit of chaos.”
But at the heart of the matter, Lahner – and others said – is the simple difficulty of change. The rescue squad’s annual contract comes up in October, and Lahner admitted there will be some changes made to the contract. He said, however, those changes are technical details that reflect the changes being made as a result of the study.
“We want rescue to survive and flourish,” said Lahner.
And while is hard, Howard got a vote of support from not only Lahner, but others.
“In the end I think (Chief Perry) Howard is making good changes,” said one anonymous source. “Do I agree with all of them? No.
“I really don’t think all those people would have liked all or any changes made by anyone that would have come in,” the source added. “They dislike change.”