Letter to the Editor: Final thoughts from Fire Chief Marshall Cook

Dear Editor:
This is an open letter to the Meeker Fire & Rescue District Board Members:
As I finish my last week here at Meeker Fire & Rescue, I would like to reflect on the last 14 months as your fire chief and give you some parting thoughts I have. Perhaps these can help you and your new chief as you continue your efforts to progress from a volunteer fire chief to a full-time chief.

I will begin by reflecting back to what I told you in my initial interview right before Thanksgiving 2014. My main philosophy is that governmental agencies should exist for one reason and one reason only: To provide the most comprehensive and cost effective service to our customers—the citizens and taxpayers of our community.
I have reiterated this philosophy numerous times throughout my brief tenure as the fire chief here in Meeker.
Although it would be easy for me to express my frustration, disappointment and perhaps even some resentment about the situation here at Meeker Fire & Rescue in a negative fashion, I have told each and every one of you that you wanted a professional chief, you hired a professional chief and I will maintain my professionalism throughout my remaining time at Meeker Fire and EMS.
With that being said I want you to know that the observations I present in this letter are intended to help make this organization even better as well as to provide the best opportunity for success for the next chief. I certainly want the best for this department and for this community. If I did not behave in this manner, then everything I said in my interview nearly a year and a half ago would have just been lies. Despite openly being called a liar by a few members of this organization on numerous occasions, I assure you that I take my integrity and honesty very seriously.
I would like to begin with my relationship with the board of directors. When I was offered this job there was discussion between myself and the board chairperson about an employment contract, a department command vehicle, benefits and a job description. I was told that there would be no contract as the board prefers to do business on a handshake. I was OK with that.
I was told that there is a Yukon that is rarely used so it should be fine for me to utilize it as a command vehicle. That did not come to fruition as my use of the Yukon created somewhat of a stir among certain board members as well as a few department members. I did not feel that my use of the Yukon as a command vehicle was worth the stir it brought among some board and department members, so I elected to not pursue that topic any further.
After working without a job description for nine months, the board was finally able to agree on a job description for the fire chief. I am glad that this is now in place as it does provide guidance to the chief on his or her responsibilities.
Almost immediately after coming to Meeker Fire & Rescue, I was able to see that there was not a real consensus among board members as to a united vision for the future of this department. A few wanted progression and modernization in the department. A few others wanted the traditional department maintained that Meeker has had for years.
Some board members wanted me in the office updating policies and working on other neglected projects. Other board members prioritized the desire for a “working chief” who spent time in the bays with trucks, firefighters and EMS providers.
I have 31 years of experience in fire and emergency services with 22 of those years being in management. I can tell you that this lack of consensus among board members created a moving target that was extremely difficult for me to hit.
Some board members took a complete hands-off approach to supervising me while others were routinely giving me directions despite a board policy that forbids individual board members from giving the fire chief directions outside the decision making processes addressed within publicized board meetings.
In all of my years of formalized management and leadership training, there has always been one constant message regarding governing elected boards, city councils, etc. Those elected officials have three primary responsibilities—establishing department policy via a mission and vision, establishing a department budget and appointing and delegating authority to a department leader.
It is important for the board to trust in the chief to conduct day-to-day operations that conform to the policy established by the board. If there is no consensus by the board on what that policy would look like, then, of course some board members will have the desire to become more intimately involved in department operations.
This micro-managing philosophy will create conflict within the department as well as a path to failure for the fire chief. It is critical that the fire chief be trusted to run the organization. He or she is the person who has spent years of their lives preparing for and receiving comprehensive education in this field. This is why you hire a full-time administrator. For the sake of the department and its future administrator, please continue to not only update and improve department policies but also learn them and follow them.
I think it’s also a true expectation that any new chief coming in from the outside is going to change things here. Some department traditions are acceptable while others must be changed.
It is a nationally accepted practice for the chief officer to get on scene and establish command, conduct a 360-degree scene size-up, locate a water supply, assess the threat to exposures, determine immediate life threats and establish an attack strategy.
This is not something that can be done while sitting in a fire truck waiting for three or so minutes for another firefighter to drive them to the scene. I think it’s important for the board and department members to understand that the hiring of a new chief will also come with changes that are not going to entirely fit with the traditions that exist within the department.
If that’s not a scenario that is understandable or acceptable, then it would probably be best to promote someone from within the current department ranks.
The next area of concern would be the responsibilities of the department’s officers. There are currently six officers below the fire chief. In all, this department spends approximately $21,500 annually in tax dollars to pay its volunteer officers.
Despite this significant amount of money, with the exception of the training officer position, there appears to be very little expectation of these officers. They are not required to be on call to the department. They have never been required to attend any sort of leadership training and there has been no real effort to require them (or any department members) to complete nationally required incident management training.
Post 9-11-01, all emergency service agencies throughout the country are required to become NIMS (National Incident Management System) compliant and we must also certify that we are on practically every grant that we apply for. This department is most assuredly not NIMS complaint.
I am not saying that the current officer staff members are not active members of the department. Most give several hours each month to the department and the community. I am saying that any person who willingly accepts the position of a department officer should be expected to attend constantly evolving leadership trainings in order to work along with the fire chief in managing the organization—especially when each officer is being paid an additional $2,000 to $5,000 a year just to be an officer.
No chief can do it alone, and the act of delegation of responsibilities is one of the greatest keys to success in any organization. We have adopted job descriptions for each officer position and I think this is a great start. The next step is to assure that each officer understands his/her role based on a job description and accepts those terms or be willing to step down and open up the position to somebody who is. The future success of this department hinges on the teamwork and mutual support that all department officers must share toward each other.
I feel that there is a history within this department where members are not discouraged from circumventing the chain of command.
As para-military organizations, fire departments function very efficiently when the chain of command is followed. This is one of the primary reasons for the creation of officer positions within the department.
Many fire departments actually address the circumventing of the chain of command through personnel policies. The policies usually state that disciplinary procedures can and will be enforced when a member elects to circumvent the proper channels in favor of taking their grievances directly to the board of directors.
There are also policies that allow a member to file an appeal or grievance against the chief if the member’s concerns have not been met to their satisfaction. Checks and balances are in place but it should always be expected that the chief or his/her officers be given the professional courtesy of trying to resolve the concern at the lowest level possible.
I truly believe that the circumventing of the chain of command has been actually encouraged by some board members. I can assure you that any chief who comes here with the leadership qualities, experience and education that you desire will find the circumventing of the chain of command that occurs so flagrantly here to be extremely damaging of the trust that needs to exist between himself/herself and the board of directors.
It is my hope that in the future the board will, at very least, discourage the circumventing of the chain of command and, more appropriately, consider adding it to the personnel policy as an offense worthy of discipline.
In holding true to my words about why governmental agencies exist, I must honestly say that the department is falling short of its responsibilities to the community. We do run fires. We do run ambulance calls. We can do some basic rescue.
With the millions of dollars the department has in reserves, there are a few areas in which improvements should be made.
The first would be hazardous materials response. When we look at the sheer number of trucks passing back and forth on Highways 13 and 64 with hazardous materials placards attached, we should be frightened. Whether we want to deal with Hazmat spills or not is irrelevant. The responsibility is ours, yet we only have a few members certified to the operations level and our Hazmat equipment cache is practically non-existent.
Given the distances to neighboring departments with Hazmat capabilities (and the tremendous amount of money in reserves), this department should have its own Hazmat response team with a few Hazmat technicians, operations level responders, comprehensive absorbant and diking capabilities, decontamination equipment and Level A, B and C suits.
There may be times when a Hazmat spill creates an immediate threat to the community and the department cannot afford to wait for an hour and a half or longer for another team to arrive and mitigate the situation. If this department elects to move forward with improving its Hazmat response capabilities, you should consider contacting Colorado River Fire Rescue in Rifle. They have a hazmat response trailer that I believe they would be willing to sell at a very reasonable price.
Another area where we are failing to meet the needs of our customers is up river on County Road 8. In my brief time in Meeker, I have discovered that there are many extremely high-value properties up river. I have been told by a few here in the department that those people know the risks of building such expensive homes up there and the increased fire risk is just one they have to be willing to take.
Those property owners pay a fire tax on their property just as everybody else in the district does. Given the values of their properties it’s a fair assumption that they pay a significant amount in fire taxes based on their property valuations, yet they may be the recipients of minimal fire protection just based on travel distances from the fire station to their properties.
Perhaps in the near future the department can reach out to the residents up river in an effort to determine a plan to utilize some of these millions of dollars in reserves to create a small fire station several miles to the east of Meeker with a Type 1 structural engine and a Type 6 wildland engine that can respond much quicker than fire engines based in Meeker. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Let me talk about division in the department. From the time I first interviewed with the board almost a year and a half ago, I’ve been hearing about division in the department. Division between fire and EMS responders seems to be a significant talking point.
I’ve had those in the department and even in the community tell me it’s a real thing and I’ve had those tell me that it’s just a perception and there is no real division at all. People, I’m here to tell you that it’s real!
I have been inside these four walls almost five days a week for the last 14 months, and I can assure you that it is most definitely real. Most of it stems from the volunteer pension program.
Never in my 31 years have I encountered a more convoluted and difficult volunteer pension program as what I’ve encountered in Meeker. I can certainly see why there have been and continue to be problems with the program. It is a complete nightmare to track and manage. I can appreciate the desire of past administrators to provide a nice pension benefit to those who committed themselves for years to the department, but, in doing so in this manner, a monster has been created.
Technically your EMS providers should not be a part of the FPPA pension plan. In order to do so, they must be considered firefighters with the ability to be called upon to act as firefighters when needed. It’s not sufficient enough that they just respond to fire calls, which they did only a couple of times in 2015 (structure fire and Strawberry Fire), aside from joint responses to car accidents. This means they must be cross -trained as firefighters and, for safety sake and worker’s comp, they must also be issued firefighting turnout gear.
None of this is happening with the vast majority of the EMS providers. There certainly is a method for providing a completely separate pension program within the department for EMS providers, and I certainly believe one should be created for them.
Only 31 percent of the department’s current members are even classified as “members in good standing.” This means that 69 percent of the members are not even considered members in good standing and that’s 69 percent not receiving pension year credits despite the fact that most of them participate to a fairly high degree, just not quite the degree that has been established to receive credit.
There is no real way to make this sound better than it is. I know the board has gone down the list and disqualified certain members in an effort to make the numbers more appealing, but in reality a member is a member. Perhaps the board (and chief) should be talking to those members who have practically stopped their participation to find out why they have done so. I believe you may find a fairly common theme among those people.
A vicious circle of sorts has been created with the pension program. Money continues to filter into the fund yet so few people are able to benefit from it. As a result, the actuarial studies continue to show that greater pension benefit amounts can be approved from time to time.
The monthly pension amount after 20 years of extremely active membership rose from $750 per month to $900 per month in 2015. In comparison, many volunteer pension programs throughout the state limit their pension benefits at $250 to $350 per month.
Although it is very admirable to want to provide your 20-year volunteers with a significant pension benefit, it appears to me that as the pension benefit amounts raised over the years so did the threshold of minimum requirements needed to receive a pension benefit.
This sense of “ownership” in the pension has made it to where very few department members qualify. Even those who are solid committed members do not qualify because they cannot meet the requirements. This creates the vicious circle I spoke of earlier because the fund continues to grow with very few members meeting eligibility for the benefits, so those few who already have the benefit or are about to receive them stand to benefit almost exclusively from the growing pot of money.
It has been recommended that a tiered approach to the pension be designed—one where the top performers receive the most benefit but also one where those who give 20 solid years but cannot meet the very high standards associated with a $900 a month benefit would still receive a benefit. Perhaps one where they would receive $300 month after 20 years.
This seems fair, and I think it would help to alleviate some of the division that exists in this department. I would strongly encourage the board to give favorable consideration to such a tiered volunteer pension plan approach.
Probably the single greatest pension-related catalyst to the division that exists within this department is the disparity that exists between firefighters and EMS responders in regard to meeting the requirements to be a “member in good standing.”
Your policies state that all members must obtain a minimum of 36 hours of training (a state mandate) annually with at least 24 of those hours being “in-house.” Furthermore, the policy also states that a firefighter must obtain at least 72 points along with attendance to at least 20 percent of the fire calls for the year. (FYI, 20 percent of the calls for 2015 would be about 17 calls).
On the EMS side, the training hour requirements are the same but the EMS member must also sign up for at least 14 12-hour call shifts per month including at least one complete weekend and at least three 24-hour holiday shifts annually.
This seems overly burdensome for the EMS providers given the fact that 14 12-hour shifts per month equals 168 hours of commitment to the department, not including attendance to trainings, business meetings and work nights. In comparison, most full time employees work approximately 160-173 hours a month.
For all practical purposes, this department is requiring a full-time commitment from a volunteer EMS provider just to be considered a “member in good standing” and therefore eligible for a pension credit year while a firefighter must attend an average of just over one call per month along with 72 points that are easily gained by any member more active than just a name on a roster.
The final concern about the pension program is chief’s discretion when it comes to granting a pension year credit. As I have said before, I hate having discretionary power as a chief because over time it becomes a very difficult animal to manage. It becomes inevitable that somebody will remember that you gave Firefighter A a pension credit two years ago, but you didn’t do the same for Firefighter B last year.
I do understand that there is a need for some discretionary power, but I think for the chief it should be very minimal. I think there should be no discretionary power for a chief when it comes to the state’s minimum training requirements.
These are laws that are not up for negotiation or discretionary interpretation. In the past, a department member may be granted a pension year credit without coming close to the state’s 36-hour minimum training requirement, yet another firefighter who met all the requirements except for attendance to a business meeting in one quarter of the year was denied. This type of selective discretionary authority has also caused a significant rift within the ranks.
I would encourage the board to get this situation under control and basically put it on the individual members to be responsible for managing their own training attendance hours, etc. We’re all adults here, and each member should assume responsibility for their participation levels.
The Budget: I know there has been a lot of talk in the papers about fiscal responsibility and efficiently managing the public’s tax dollars, but there are some concerns I see here as well.
First of all, I do not agree with using tax dollars to pay for alcohol at the banquet. Most public entities frown on such use of tax dollars. I also have concerns about allowing anybody on the department to make purchases without first asking the chief for authorization. This has nothing to do with egos or power. This has to do with the fact that the fire board should be holding the chief responsible for operating the department within an approved fiscal budget and that is very difficult to do when the chief is unaware of the various purchases and spending occurring within the department.
There should be a regimented process for purchases being made on behalf of the department while utilizing tax dollars.
Given the amount of money in reserves, it also does not seem to be fiscally responsible to continue throwing thousands of dollars into repairing extremely old fire apparatus. To me, it defies logic to spend anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000 to repair the pump on a nearly 30-year-old fire engine that has a market value of about $10,000. Most smaller volunteer fire departments struggle to fund operations, but this department has the funds to actually maintain a more modern up-to-date fleet.
I also believe that it is just good policy to follow a road map when it comes to capital purchases. I have always been taught to create and attempt to follow a five-year capital outlay plan, which I created for the board in the fall of 2015. This gives the department a long-range plan for the replacement of more expensive items.
Of course it can be altered as needed, but it at least provides some guidance and a direction of movement. To my knowledge, the five-year plan was not considered during the FY 2016 budgetary planning period last fall. I would still encourage the board to work with a similar type of plan in the future.
I don’t see this as all doom and gloom though.
I have tremendous respect for most members of this department. I have continuously found myself amazed at the level of commitment by most of your staff. I’m also amazed at the sheer numbers of volunteers on the department. I don’t feel that recruitment and retention are the greatest priorities of this organization.
The fact that there are currently 41 members with another three to four applicants in the process of joining is simply amazing to me; particularly given the size of the community. I have seen numerous larger communities with smaller volunteer staff members on their rosters.
Recruitment and retention are much greater issues for those departments. We currently have so many on our roster that we no longer have structural firefighting gear in the inventory (other than the set I wore) that meets NFPA standards for a new member.
This is not a bad problem to have. Most volunteer fire departments would love to have this problem. I must applaud this group of volunteers. They do a phenomenal job for this community. I think some of the officers do a great job as well. I just feel that they can achieve even greater heights with some leadership training and an expectation to follow the new officer job descriptions.
One last final thought before I wrap this up.
I would encourage you all to make every attempt to get behind your new fire chief and allow him to feel like the board has his back. This is something I have not felt from the board as a whole since I arrived in Meeker.
I have been subjected to one member who has openly called me a liar more in the last year than I have experienced in my entire life. I’ve had board members accuse me of dishonesty and intentionally misleading them.
There have been innuendos that I am not a working chief and that I have not interacted with the department very much. I have provided the board with my training attendance hours (second most in the department), accumulated points (first in the department) and call attendance (tied for third most in the department) and yet there are rumors that I have “doctored the books” somehow.
At these performance levels there’s very little chance that they could be accomplished without interacting with the crew.
Tact, diplomacy and professionalism account for everything, and I certainly pray for my successor that this “first full-time experiment” we have gone through over the last 14 months has provided you all with some insight into how you could do things a little different. As I mentioned earlier, the fire chief and the board of directors must develop a level of trust in each other before this department can begin to flourish.
In closing, please let me reiterate that I share these thoughts because I do want the absolute best for this department and the community it serves. Some of my thoughts may have felt a little harsh, but I’ve tried to be as tactful and professional as possible. Please take them as constructive in nature because that’s how they are intended.
I’m not a first-time chief and my 22 years of fire/EMS management experience and education gives me fairly accurate insights. I have employed those insights as I wrote this letter.
Despite my departure from the Rio Blanco Fire Protection District, I reiterate that I want the absolute best for this department and the community. I have offered my assistance in any way possible regardless of where the future finds me. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of any assistance to the board, the new chief or the membership.
Again, you wanted a professional. You hired a professional and I am very proud to say that I have remained a professional throughout this entire process.
Marshall D. Cook
Former Fire Chief
Meeker