Walkout by Washington firefighters
For a brief moment Tuesday night, it appeared as if the town of Washington would lose its fire department.
At an argumentative meeting of the Washington County Water District’s board, which governs the fire department, 12 of 14 firefighters walked out in protest of the recent firing of their fire chief. Moments later, many of those firefighters were back at work, saving the life of a car-crash victim.
In all, about half of those who resigned were persuaded to pull back their resignations for the time being.
The center of the conflict was Mervin Lee, who was fired by the water board last week after an audit of the fire department showed serious shortcomings.
“We rely on that man,” said Washington resident Toby Dixon, pointing at Lee.
Added firefighter Allison Wells, “We are not going to follow a strange man into the backwoods.”
The audit by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that none of the department’s equipment is capable of responding to fires or medical calls, and cited a lack of financial and operational documentation.
The firefighters came to Tuesday’s meeting to demand that Lee be rehired, but the water district board, led by President Judi Stewart, would not budge. The walkout was anticipated, but Stewart – along with board attorney Jim Curtis and Tony Clarabut, CDF’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit chief, tried to change firefighters’ minds.
“When we agreed to do the audit, we had no idea that the audit … would end up in the acrimony we are in today,” Clarabut said. “That saddens me. I would hope the volunteers would recognize they have to work through that.”
Curtis told the group of about 50 onlookers, many of them firefighters, that the board was doing the right thing – legally, at least – in firing Lee. He said the former chief was responsible for the condition of the department.
“We have laws that require employers to put safety in the forefront,” he said. “Board members are personally accountable if they let that go on. There has to be a paper trail.
“Ignorance is bliss until it catches up to you,” Curtis told the citizens. “It’s catching up to you.”
Board Vice-President Lyla Tracy agreed.
“We don’t want to be liable,” Tracy said. “We don’t want to lose our district. We definitely don’t want to lose our property.”
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