Officials react to fire department rift

Chris Ritenour, president of he Strasburg Fire Department, addresses Strasburg Town Council on Tuesday night. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Several Town Council members urged the president of the Strasburg Volunteer Fire Department on Tuesday to consider getting outside help in responding to internal complaints of unprofessional conduct, poor training and uneven disciplinary actions.

The council members made their comments after department President Chris Ritenour delivered remarks on steps being taken to resolve problems identified in letters recently received by local and county officials from three veteran members of the department.

Ritenour’s comments were similar to those made at a county Board of Supervisors meeting at which he disclosed steps being taken to tighten up the use of department credit cards and reviewing, where necessary, upgrading the training and certifications of department members.

The town council’s ability to manage the fire department is limited by the department’s status as a volunteer, nonprofit organization. Much of the department’s revenue comes from its own fund-raising activities and personnel decisions are controlled by internal by-laws. The town contributes a certain amount of money every year to the department’s operations.

Council member Seth Newman said he was “very concerned” about public safety.

Sara Mauck, a citizen who had spoken earlier in the meeting, called for an outside consultant to make recommendations for improvements in personnel management and training.

Mauck said the problems in the Strasburg department are symptoms of a larger trend of fire departments around the nation having trouble recruiting and retaining volunteers.

“This is not a Strasburg problem,” Mauck said. “It is something that is happening everywhere in the United States.”

Newman said he agreed with Mauck’s call for an outside consultant. Newman said he was struck by firefighter letters’ repeated denunciations of the department’s leadership, specifically Fire Chief Jeff Wharton. Newman said he remained concerned that the review and reform process described by Ritenour remained subject to influence by those who contributed to the problems in the first place.

“It’s like leadership watching leadership,” Newman said. “I’m concerned about that.”

Council member Richard Orndorff Jr. defended the process led by Ritenour, who was installed as president of the department in July. Several other administrative positions have also turned over recently.

“This is not the leadership spoken of in the correspondence we’ve received,” Orndorff said.

Council member Jocelyn Vena said she disagreed with a recommendation by council member Don Le Vine that asked Ritenour to provide a formal schedule of the progress being made in the department’s review.

“You just have to straighten out your own house,” Vena told Ritenour.

Le Vine and several other council members urged Ritenour to bring the department’s internal critics into the review process.

“I think it can be a collaborative effort,” Le Vine said. “They all want the fire department to succeed.”

Earlier on Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors meeting, Ritenour gave a report on the agency’s efforts and to address any concerns supervisors have with the Strasburg Fire Department.

“We take the allegations that were made very seriously and … we have taken action to investigate them immediately following the initial meeting with the appointed committee,” Ritenour said, reading from a statement. “We, as the department, accept responsibility for rectifying any shortcomings and we acknowledge that while the allegations were exaggerated there are issues that need to be addressed and we will take corrective actions to take care of those.”

The department retained the firm of Robinson, Farmer, Cox and Associates to perform a financial audit of the organization’s bank statements and internal purchasing procedures, Ritenour said. The audit should take about two months. The department suspended its company credit cards pending the outcome of the independent audit, Ritenour said. The department expects to share the results of the audit with county leaders once complete, he added.

The department also scheduled a series of work sessions beginning Sept. 12 to review the agency’s policies and procedures, to increase accountability and, specifically, to address conduct violations consistently and fairly, Ritenour said.

Officials with the county Department of Fire and Rescue and others have offered support to the volunteer organization, Ritenour noted.

“We are conducting a complete review of the training records to verify our members responding to emergency incidents are qualified,” Ritenour said. “If any additional training is required, we intend to work closely with the (county fire and rescue) staff to facilitate programs at our station to help accommodate our volunteer schedules and our availability.”

The volunteer group anticipates the review of the training records to take about a month, Ritenour said.

The group strives to improve communication within its membership and with town and county officials, Ritenour added. The organization also maintains an open-door policy, keeps office hours and is available by phone, text and email, Ritenour said. Using these tools, the organization addresses complaints through its grievance procedure, Ritenour said.

“We can’t speak for the actions of the prior administration but the current administration is sincere in achieving long-term goals and improving our organization,” Ritenour said.

The president noted that the group has four new officers who stepped in to assume the recently vacated leadership positions.

Supervisor Cindy Bailey voiced support for the organization’s actions, particularly the suspension of its credit cards.

“There’s acknowledgement there that that’s part of the problem,” Bailey said.

The supervisor said it seemed that some members weren’t following the organization’s policies and procedures. Bailey said it appeared that department Chief Jeff Wharton “was trying to be a friend instead of a boss” when it came to enforcing the policies. Wharton, who works as a paid firefighter in another locality, was not able to attend the meeting.

Ritenour said he was unaware of the grievances and problems, or at least to the extent aired publicly in recent weeks, until his appointment as president July 9.

Bailey asked Ritenour if the organization, as it worked to resolve the problems, would try to bring back members who left because of an earlier “lack of leadership.”

“I believe that their input is critical in our policy-making process so if they have concerns, if we know them, we can work with them,” Ritenour said. “We can find out where any deficiencies may be.

“But we, again, have to establish that formal communication where they will collaborate with us and I intend to reach out to each one of those individuals and establish a meeting where we can sit down and talk,” Ritenour added. “I just wish we had that opportunity earlier.”

Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley said the key word for moving forward is teamwork and all members of the volunteer organization working together.

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

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