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June 28, 2013
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Firefighters file $1M claim against Consolidated Fire

Wyatt Howell and Brad Amaral have filed a $1 million tort claim against the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Thursday relating to a 2008 training incident that ended in a nearly fatal accident.

A tort claim notifies a public agency about a desired dollar amount for the aggrieved parties and allows the agency the chance to settle without going to court.

The claim asserts that Consolidated Fire Chairman Warren Knox and Director Mark Bass alleged that Amaral and Howell filed a false report about a January 2008 “live burn.” A “live burn” is used as training for firefighters.

Howell said he was injured during the “life-threatening incident” and Amaral suffered psychological damages as a result of the incident.

According to Howell, Consolidated Fire refused to acknowledge the incident occurred, and he has been rebuffed by district administration in his quest to procure appropriate medical and psychological treatment for ill effects stemming from the incident.

Jim Curtis, legal counsel for Consolidated Fire, said the matter was being forwarded to the fire district’s insurance carrier after a closed session meeting during the Thursday regular board meeting.

“The vast majority of claims are denied, and the aggrieved parties are free to file a lawsuit,” Curtis said.

Live burn

During the March 21 board meeting, an item relating to the incident was pulled from the agenda at the behest of Curtis, who said the matter was between the firefighters and workers’ compensation.

In the supporting documents, the incident is recounted as follows.

During the live burn, Capt. Brad Amaral was on the second floor of an old farmhouse, attempting to extinguish a portion of the fire, when the floor beneath him collapsed.

Amaral’s self-contained breathing apparatus was all that prevented him from crashing to the floor where an active fire was blazing, the report stated.

Amaral radioed for help and Howell responded, disentangling his SBCA and lifting the 250-pound man from the caved-in area of the second story.

Amaral lost consciousness and Howell carried him down the stairs and exited the building. Amaral was treated by an ambulance but refused transport.

“Both employees exhibit signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to this incident,” the report stated. Howell said he injured his back in the incident.

The report further asserted that after the board received this report in closed session, Bass said he was told by Fire Protection Officer Terry McMahan, who participated in the live burn, that the incident “was no big deal and didn’t happen as reported by Amaral and Howell.”

The claim filed Thursday by Nevada City attorney Richard Frishman states that “the allegations contained in the quoted material … were knowingly false, or made with reckless disregard of the truth, and/or misquoted Terry McMahan.”

The claim further states an investigation the board directed former Division Chief David Ray to conduct was never executed.

The claim accused the board of defamation, violation of privacy, confidentiality and a willful intent to inflict emotional harm.

At the center of the swirl

Howell has been immersed at the center of controversy at Consolidated Fire, making public both the vote of no confidence relating to former Fire Chief Tim Fike and the subsequent physical confrontation between Fike and Mechanic Kevin Greene.

The Nevada County grand jury recent report on Consolidated Fire’s board of directors detailed the lengths to which the seven-person board went to keep the no-confidence vote from the public, including violations of open meeting laws.

However, after firefighters were awarded merit increases and other concessions that were retroactive to the beginning of 2012 last November, many members of the public questioned whether Howell and the union had too much influence on board decisions.

Linda Chaplin, who attends every board meeting and who unsuccessfully ran for the board of directors in 2012, said “Local 3800 is basically in charge of Nevada County Consolidated” at the November meeting.

The grand jury questioned the memorandum of understanding between the district and the union due to “close personal relationships between some directors and the leadership of (the union),” referring to Howell and Director Keith Grueneberg.

Howell said the grand jury report was severely flawed and said Grueneberg looks out for the best interest of the taxpayers.

Howell further said the grand jury was overly influenced by Lisa LaBarbera, former Human Resources director at Consolidated Fire, who is currently pursuing an effort to recall Grueneberg.

LaBarbera said Grueneberg acted inappropriately as the lead negotiator, has circulated inappropriate, racially insensitive material and deserves to be recalled.

Grueneberg said he is being targeted specifically because he came into the district with a reformist mentality and those with a vested interest in the status quo resented his efforts to change the culture.

Howell agreed, saying the former HR director is pursuing the recall less from a feeling of social responsibility and more from a personal grudge against the director who first recommended outsourcing HR in 2012, months before LaBarbera retired in January 2013.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or 530-477-4239.


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The Union Updated Jun 29, 2013 09:38AM Published Jul 2, 2013 11:16AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.