Grand jury raises issues with fire department

Community members also concerned with firing of lontime volunteer fire captain.

Carmen GeorgeMay 22, 2013 

A recent Madera County Grand Jury report brought forth findings of mismanagement and personnel concerns throughout the Madera County Fire Department.

The grand jury focused largely on Cal Fire's dealings with the county's paid-call firefighters (PCFs), commonly referred to as volunteer firefighters.

One of the more serious findings is that a "contentious work environment" exists for volunteer firefighters, where "numerous forms of discrimination exists."

The grand jury reported that the total number of volunteer firefighters has "significantly decreased over the past few years." The county's 10 volunteer-only stations, which have an authorized allocation of 200, currently have approximately 44 active volunteers, according to the report. Increased training requirements out of the area was also cited as a reason for the decrease.

In Madera County, the Madera County Fire Department is run by Cal Fire, with contractual agreements between the county and the agency dating back to the 1920s.

In the grand jury's "Madera County Fire Department" report, they also stated that the Madera County fire chief is not following administrative and operational policies for the fire department that were adopted by the Madera County Board of Supervisors, along with other directives and ordinances adopted by the supervisors.

The grand jury came out strong in its instruction to the board of supervisors, stating that the board is not overseeing the ongoing application of ordinances and resolutions already in effect pertaining to the Madera County Fire Department, and that the board should direct the county fire chief to adhere to existing policies.

"The relationship between the Cal Fire and the volunteer fireman -- that's more important to me than anything right now," said District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler. "We need to work on getting that relationship back, because we need the volunteer fireman like mad to keep our communities safe up there, so whatever I can do to work on that, that's what I'll be doing ... I want to get it back to where it was when I was young, when we had many, many volunteers."

"I do appreciate the work the grand jury has done," said Nancy Koerperich, Cal Fire unit chief for the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit. "They've noted a lot of items that we need to address in the fire department, but unfortunately, they never spoke to me, and I think a lot of their findings are really hear-say. So I'm looking forward to really giving the official response ... So our position is clear, we are going to meet with the county administration. We have to have it by June 19."

The grand jury said that a new policy and procedures manual being prepared by Cal Fire has not been vetted by volunteer firefighters, and recommended that the board of supervisors also direct Cal Fire to work cooperatively and transparently with volunteers firefighters to update it.

Other recommendations include: The board direct the chief to include volunteer firefighter representation on the department's Executive Committee; ensure volunteer companies have approved bylaws; assist and advise companies and auxiliaries to obtain a non-exempt status; establish a recruitment and retention program to increase volunteer staffing; direct county fire chief to explore local training possibilities; establish a new classification for volunteers; Human Resources investigate concerns relating to the contentious work environment; and seek funding for additional volunteer compensation through programs and grants.

"We have policies and procedures not only in our Cal Fire department, but through Madera County as well, to make sure everyone is adhering to both," said Cal Fire Southern Region Chief Dale Hutchinson. "Regarding any allegations or formal complaints, we work closely with Madera County to make sure they are all addressed."

Personnel issues

Volunteer firefighters were classified as "extra help" in 2010, and when that happened, the grand jury said it caused a reduction in volunteer firefighter benefits and rights that conflict with policies, ordinances and resolutions adopted by the board of supervisors.

"It was made clear to Cal Fire at that point in time (2010), and throughout discussions afterwards, that the change to 'extra help' was a payroll system change only, and not a personnel change," said a representative from the county.

Allegations have arisen that the "extra help" classification was improperly used to terminate Station 12 volunteer fire captain Bob Kernaghan without going through proper progressive discipline procedures.

Kernaghan was let go Jan. 28, just months before his 30-year mark as a volunteer firefighter. He said he still has not been told why he was fired, and that he received no progressive discipline meetings or paperwork before he was let go.

He received a three-sentence dismissal letter, signed by Koerperich, that included the mention that "Extra Help appointments are temporary in nature, and incumbents may be separated, without cause, at any time."

"He (Kernaghan) called me the night it happened, and I was just in complete shock that they would treat someone that poorly, someone with 30 years of service," said Gary Williams who has served as a volunteer firefighter with Station 18 in Cedar Valley for 25 years. "They should be giving him a plaque instead of a letter of dismissal and I can't even begin to fathom what they think he did to cause them to fire him. We do have policies and procedures for progressive discipline and as far as I can see they didn't follow any of that. They went straight for dismissal instead of counseling ...

"I don't think he did anything wrong. I think it was a personality dispute between himself, the battalion chief and the station captain ... My gut reaction when they fired Bob was, 'I'm turning in my gear. I can't be associated with an organization that does this.'"

"Unfortunately he's forgotten what his role is in the fire department and it's unfortunate," Koerperich said. "We have a lot of respect for him, but he's obviously got issues with respect for us ... I can't tell him the reason he's being terminated, but I've sat down with him for hours ... What I can say officially is Mr. Kernaghan has been provided progressive discipline and really the bottom line is the fire chief has the ultimate decision, and I made the decision based on the information I was provided."

"I believe my termination was an error based on misinformation and I believe it was not in the best interest of Madera County Fire," Kernaghan said. "My hopes going forward is that we just withdraw the termination and I go back to work for the citizens of Madera County."

"I know Bob; he's a good friend and a top-notch fireman," said Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, also the longtime volunteer fire captain for Station 17 in O'Neals. "I'm not updated on both sides of the story, but I hope someone will take a look at how many years Bob gave to train himself and how many years he gave of service to the county and really seriously consider reinstating him because he's just a tremendous asset and has always been that when the need arose to be called. I'm sure all parties can find a solution to this matter."

The full grand jury report is available on the Madera County website at http://www.madera-county.com/index.php/grand-jury-reports/2012-2013

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