Former chief reacts to fire department takeover

By Alex Bridges

Former members of the Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department claim government officials bullied and “blindsided” the group before taking over their station.

Harlin “Buddy” Cook, a chief of the department for more than 10 years, and his wife, Bonnie, also a volunteer, reacted Thursday to the disbanding of the organization by leaders in Warren and Clarke counties.

The Boards of Supervisors in both counties took action Tuesday afternoon to dissolve the volunteer fire department and to immediately take control of the station at 6363 Howellsville Road. The fire department has been in operation since 1971.

Most members received no warning that Warren County had taken steps to assume control of the station, Mrs. Cook said. However, county officials indicated in statements that the volunteer group had been given a year to improve its management.

“We knew that it was possible that something could happen or could take place,” Harlin Cook said by phone. “We was totally blindsided by this. There was no forewarnings or any meetings to the effect that ‘we’re going to give you a week’ or x-number of days. It just all of a sudden happened.

“Everybody’s still in shock from it,” he added. “I know I put in many, many hours down there along with my colleagues and it just seems like it was all in vain, you know?”

His wife shared his feeling.

“I’m bitter,” Mrs. Cook said. “I just think it was totally underhanded.”

Deputies with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office provided security at the station the afternoon the counties took control. The county attorney’s office sought a court order for an injunction to secure assets at the station. But as Mrs. Cook noted, members who went to the station, including her husband, did not see any such order barring access. Members were allowed to retrieve personal items.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that they can come in and take something that is privately owned,” Mrs. Cook said. “I think that is just ridiculous and I don’t understand, legally, how they can get by with it.”

Members of the now-defunct organizations have not yet discussed the group or the station’s future.

“I think everyone’s still in shock,” Mrs. Cook said.

An audit commissioned by the counties in 2011 found financial irregularities occurring within the management of the department. The audit made recommendations to correct problems in the organization.

But, according to a press release issued by the counties on Tuesday, problems persisted in the organization. The release also made claims that some members engaged in unprofessional behavior.

Mrs. Cook refutes several claims in the release, including information about a gasoline tank she said the county did not remove as stated. She noted that “isolated” incidents had occurred, but that those involved single individuals removed by the volunteer department.

“The officials did not report it correctly,” Mrs. Cook said.

Harlin Cook left the department for a couple of years but returned recently in an effort to help revive and improve the organization. Other former members also returned to help.

Mrs. Cook said members had made progress over the time after the audit. But she and her husband said they suspected the counties planned the takeover before giving the organization the chance to make improvements.

“We were trying to fix it,” Harlin Cook said. “We never really was given the opportunity to fix it. They gave us some time, but they would let us do it our way.”

He said the organization began its own investigation of the group after the audit’s release and noted that the group dismissed members found to pose problems in the organization.

“I thought we was headed in the right direction with this thing,” he said.

Cook added that the counties tied the volunteer department’s hands by entering into memorandums of understanding that allowed Warren County to assume certain controls over the organization’s finances. The press release indicated these agreements did not give the county total control.

Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services Chief Richard Mabie has said he hopes that in the near future the station can again have volunteers. The county department assigned part-time fire and rescue personnel to staff the station 24 hours a day, seven days a week at Company 6.

Mabie and other county fire officials were at the station Thursday morning. Mabie said they had found outdated medical supplies and obsolete equipment that would need to be replaced. Mabie said he hopes to make some improvements to the station building in the near future.

Mrs. Cook voiced skepticism that the county can restore the company station and its volunteer crew. Her husband expressed more optimism.

“I know that there’s a lot of people on the mountain, knows who I am, they know what I’ve done for the community, they know what that fire department has done for the community,” he said. “The floods, the storms, carrying medicine to them, so on and so forth.

“It’s just a shame,” he added. “I sit down and had me a good cry a day or so ago and I just figured there isn’t a whole lot we can do with it. Perhaps they’ll let us get back into it and reorganize something down there if we can get back to giving the people the best service that we can.”

The former chief noted that the department’s volunteer staff remained low for a while but its membership did start to see improvement. He questioned how the county can afford to keep paid staff in the station.

But even with lower call numbers, fire and rescue workers are needed for the Shenandoah Farms area, he added.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com