Fire station rocked by member’s accusations

Shenandoah County Fire Chief Gary Yew met Monday with officials from the Strasburg Fire Department to discuss an officer’s wide ranging accusations of misconduct and mismanagement in the department.

The accusations are contained in a five-page letter written by Dan Rothstein, who describes himself as a 16-year veteran of the department who has ranked as high as captain. Letter recipients included Yew, County Administrator Mary T. Price, Strasburg Mayor Timothy Taylor, each member of the Strasburg Town Council and each member of the county Board of Supervisors.

Rothstein did not return phone messages asking him to comment on the letter.

The letter blasts what Rothstein called a “clique of kids who have no rules or regulations to follow and run rampant in the fire house, which has caused older members to leave or not come in for calls anymore.”

Rothstein condemned Chief Jeff Wharton for allowing the department to become a “fraternity house with letting in junior members and younger members with the notion they can hang out at the fire house, bring friends in all hours of the night and also spend the night there.”

The letter calls on county officials to restructure the fire department and warns of injuries, loss of life and lawsuits against the department if changes aren’t made.

Rothstein’s letter depicted a department with discipline and personnel policies in shambles.

He stated that one member of the department who drove a rescue vehicle onto Interstate 81 was banished from the department and then allowed to return.

Another member of the department, under the legal drinking age, appeared drunk at the department with a case of beer, Rothstein wrote.

“This member was in the clique, and Jeff had told him to resign before he got kicked out,” Rothstein said, referring to Wharton.

Rothstein said the member “resigned before anything could be done and then reapplied and was let back in.”

Rothstein said a high ranking member of the department was arrested on charges of drunk driving but was allowed to remain active, despite a by-law calling for anyone charged with a criminal offense to be placed on administrative leave.

The leniency shown the member facing the drunk driving charge set a precedent that allowed another member to resume duty only a week after he was initially suspended for 90 days, Rothstein said. The 90-day suspension came after an area resident accused the member of urinating on the side of the resident’s house while on a call.

“As long as the clique and Chief Wharton are in the department, there will be no rules . . . enforced or followed due to they keep letting their friends in the department and outnumber the few members who see what is . . . wrong,” Rothstein wrote, adding that members of the clique “vote ‘no’ to bring the truth to the table, and they just blow it off.”

Wharton declined to comment on the accusations, citing Yew’s inquiry as his reason.

Yew said in an interview Monday that he had met earlier in the day with Chris Ritenour, the department’s president and Assistant Fire Chief Rob Scott.

“The officers we’ve talked to are very concerned about what has taken place, but not everything portrayed in the letter is accurate,” Yew said. “They are very sincere and focused on anything that needs attention.”

Yew, who described the meeting as more of a fact-finding effort than an investigation, said he plans to speak with more members of the department before deciding on the validity of Rothstein’s criticisms.

Yew added that no disciplinary actions have been taken so far.

“We’re working very hard within the organization to restore what confidence may have been lost by anybody, and the county is prepared to do whatever we can to help them with training or whatever they may request,” Yew said.

Rothstein said in his letter that several members of the department lack certifications to perform CPR and other life saving training, which made him fear that “sooner or later someone is going to get hurt or, even worse, killed.”

Rothstein described one fire where an officer “who has no training except firefighter 1 and 2 was told there might be someone in the residence, he was totally clueless . . .what to do, and it wasn’t until the Woodstock Fire Department was there that a primary search was done.”

Other members are not fingerprinted, despite a state law requiring it, Rothstein said.

“I have seen members come right in, fill an application out and told to go over to the trucks and given gear that day without any of this being done,” Rothstein wrote.

Rothstein also accused some members of the clique of spending department money on food they cook for themselves at the station without informing others about it.

“Jeff Wharton takes them out to eat and puts it on the department credit card,” Rothstein wrote.

He added that a former president of the department conducted some meetings at restaurants where meals were ordered and placed on department credit cards.

“To me, this is . . . “waste, fraud and abuse for not only the department funds but for taxpayers whose money and donations go into the fire department,” Rothstein wrote.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com