The recent controversy involving the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District and the only chief it has ever had, Bradley George, provides several lessons, many of them on the subject of how not to handle such a situation.
When employees initially came to members of the Paint Creek board to complain about chief George while the chief was on vacation, the board was right to take their concerns seriously. Ultimately, it is the board – even more than the chief or any other entity – that is accountable for the operation of the Paint Creek fire district.
But the board’s quick decision to immediately suspend the chief created an atmosphere of doubt, suspicion, rumor and uncertainty. A more thoughtful and deliberative approach should have been the first step, followed by a formal public statement detailing the issues as much as possible within the constraints of divulging disciplinary considerations against an employee. There is no substitute for good communication; in its void is unfounded speculation, always.
There were at least a couple of Paint Creek firefighters who in essence threatened to quit if the board did not terminate the chief. Ironically, such ultimatums almost always have the opposite impact than what is intended by those who present them. Capitulating to such demands sends the message that the employees, rather than the board, are running the district, a situation that quickly spirals out of control, as evidenced by similar situations over the years. If for no other reason than demonstrating that it would not succumb to such tactics, the board did the right thing by allowing chief George to keep his job.
One item that both the board and district employees did exactly right was offer complete openness and access to a federal wage and hour official who came onsite to investigate the issue of overtime pay and other matters. Paint Creek’s complete cooperation, and acknowledgment that mistakes were made, led the federal agency to adopt an attitude of helpfulness rather than a prosecutorial mindset that could have led to the imposing of hefty penalties.
That Paint Creek is being allowed to merely pay the money that should have been paid up front, without fines or penalties, is a testament to the district’s level of openness that was demonstrated to federal officials. As a result, as noted by Lee Koogler, Hillsboro’s non-voting board member, the district is no worse off financially than it would have been had the wages been paid correctly in the first place.
Nevertheless, there are obviously several areas where the Paint Creek department needs better policies and expertise, and the firefighters who raised the concerns were right to do so, even if their approach was flawed. While firefighter overtime pay is a complicated formula, particularly as it relates to part-time firefighters, Paint Creek, as the largest fire protection provider in Highland County, should have mastery of it. There is no excuse for similar mistakes in the future.
Additionally, safety is a crucial issue for firefighters, and no firefighter should be asked to use any of the tools of the trade, including vehicles, that are not in certifiably working condition. Penny-pinching and cost savings are admirable, but never at the expense of safety.
Fortunately, the problems experienced by Paint Creek were mostly internal issues. Externally, Paint Creek has received consistently high marks from the public it serves, a testament to all Paint Creek firefighters who have focused on their duties even through the recent turmoil. Paint Creek firefighters have conducted themselves professionally and honorably.
Bradley George has been Paint Creek’s one and only chief since its inception nearly six years ago. When Paint Creek was formed as a small district primarily covering the Greenfield area, no one foresaw that within a few short years it would become the dominant firefighting and emergency medical provider in Highland County. Chief George’s charge to lead that growth was a Herculean task, and he has always been the first to credit his entire staff, including assistant chief Chad Hamilton, for the success the district has had. Both chief George and assistant chief Hamilton are dedicated to their profession and excellent public faces of the Paint Creek fire department. Given recent events, it may be difficult for them to work side-by-side again. But “difficult” does not have to be “impossible.”
It is likely that after his suspension, which provides perhaps his first lengthy opportunity to take a breath and consider how far the Paint Creek district has come, along with examining his management approach, chief George will return to his duties with a fresh outlook and a desire to hit the reset button with his team of dedicated firefighters.
Ideally, what Paint Creek will do from this point is take the opportunity to make the changes it obviously needs to make, with a chief who adjusts parts of his administrative style, employees who will give their chief a second chance, and a board that better understands the heavy responsibility it has to oversee it all more closely.