All is not well in the Penn Valley Fire Protection District.
A contingent of angry residents attended Tuesday’s regular meeting of the fire board of directors and expressed discontent about Chief Gene Vander Plaats and the state of the district under his stewardship.
While the complaints were far-ranging, numerous pointed questions delivered by several different audience members revolved around the sharp decline in volunteer firefighters since Vander Plaats assumed the helm of the district in 2003, whether the chief has the proper certifications to act as an incident commander and whether his salary increases have been appropriate in a time of fiscal constraints.
“Vander Plaats is a hazard to this community,” said Bill Gassaway, a former volunteer with the district who led the charge during the meeting, peppering the board and the chief with questions. “The community does not have confidence in that chief of that board.”
Gassaway called the board dysfunctional for providing Vander Plaats with a nearly 35 percent raise over the nine-year period of his employment.
According to Gassaway, he has obtained documents that show Vander Plaats was hired at an initial salary of about $79,000 per year and after nine years, five of which came during a large economic recession, Vander Plaats is making $111,221 for the current fiscal year.
Vander Plaats, who claimed that Gassaway has a personal ax to grind, said he was actually hired at $84,000.
“He also failed to mention I have not taken a uniform allowance and I only received a 1 percent raise last year,” Vander Plaats said. “I negotiate my contract with the board every year.”
Kurt Grundel, chairman of the Penn Valley Fire board, said Vander Plaats has gone a couple of seasons without a raise.
Gassaway said dissatisfaction continues to fester in the rank and file, largely because Vander Plaats has been receiving raises while others’ salaries have been frozen.
Again, Vander Plaats questioned the veracity of that assertion, saying five of his 10 career firefighters, the district secretary and the battalion chief received step raises the last fiscal year.
The career firefighters that did not receive a step raise were at the top of their position’s salary range, Vander Plaats said.
Gassaway said Penn Valley constituents are not receiving the proper bang for their tax dollars, asserting Vander Plaats lacks the necessary amount of certifications to be able to run incident commands on the scenes of accidents and/or structure and vegetation fires.
“The board is subjecting this community to harm,” Gassaway said.
“He is the first at the scene on accidents and he does not have current certification from the National Incident Management System, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group and the California State Fire Marshall.”
Vander Plaats did not specifically deny Gassaway’s assertion that he lacked accreditation, but did say he has 28 years experience in the fire service, 16 years of which he spent as fire chief of the Ripon Fire District.
“I’ve taken fire science classes and Hazmat classes,” Vander Plaats said. “Most important is my experience in administration and management.”
Vander Plaats said managing an incident has little to do with specific firefighting tactics or paramedic knowledge (Vander Plaats was a paramedic for 25 years) and has more to do with proper delegation of duties and responsibilities and putting people in the right place.
“He is not qualified and I don’t believe the community is aware of his inconsistencies,” he said.
“Certifications have to be kept intact and he has never been able to answer to that.”
Grundel said he has faith that his chief is qualified to perform all his duties.
“The day-to-day work is the duty of battalion chiefs and captains,” Grundel said. “He has knowledge of particular information. I believe he is qualified.”
Finally, Gassaway accused Vander Plaats of gutting the volunteer program.
“When he came to the district, we had over 20,” Gassaway said.
Vander Plaats said the decline in volunteer firefighters has occurred due to recent legislation that requires fire departments that have both career and volunteer firefighters to ensure all firefighters maintain the same level of training.
To get appropriately certified, a volunteer firefighter must invest about 500 hours of his or her own time and then work essentially for free.
He said the fire district maintains an internship program that allows people with in interest in a fire service career to cut their teeth while bolstering staffing numbers.
“It is a successful program,” Vander Plaats said.
During the regular meeting, board members said they would consider distributing flyers letting the community know they would welcome volunteer efforts.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
“(Chief Gene) Vander Plaats is a hazard to this community. The community does not have confidence in that chief of that board.”
a former volunteer with the Penn Valley Fire Protection District