Fire chief responds to accusations

STRASBURG – Four months after three members of the Strasburg Fire Department circulated letters warning of shoddy discipline and shaky morale in the department, Fire Chief Jeff Wharton said some of the complaints had merit, some didn’t and some were exaggerated.

Wharton made his remarks following months of follow up meetings and investigation that he conducted with Chris Ritenour, president of the department’s board.

“When the allegations came out, a lot of us were shocked about them because we didn’t know these things were going on,” Wharton said.

The letter writers – Dan Rothstein, Thomas Frazier and Bradley Polk – blamed Wharton for many of the department’s troubles. Polk cited what he called “a lack of leadership and authority” that led to a rift between older and younger members at the fire station.

Rothstein accused Wharton of misusing department credit cards by paying for meals at restaurants where some department meetings were conducted.

Wharton said Ritenour and the treasurer examined the credit card expenditures and found no wrongdoing. The department is still awaiting the results of a records review being conducted by an outside auditing agency.

“Everything I did was justified through the Fire Department and cleared by the Fire Department,” Wharton said of the credit card expenditures.

Wharton said the criticisms from Rothstein, Frazier and Polk have had a mixed effect on an organization where, like many fire departments, internal discord is rarely aired in public. On the one hand, Wharton said the department’s brotherhood – the sense of trust firefighters need in each other when they risk their lives plunging into buildings filled with smoke and flames – “has really picked up.”

On the other hand, Wharton said, the controversy “made the department stronger but some of the members are upset about what happened because that normally doesn’t happen at departments anywhere in the country.”

Wharton admitted to finding some things awry when he checked into complaints that some of the department members lack certifications for CPR and other life saving training.

Wharton said when he went to review files listing training and certifications completed by department members, he discovered 20 of them were missing.

“We have no idea when they went missing,” Wharton said of the files.

Accusations of alcoholic beverages at the fire station proved mostly true, although Wharton said several of the incidents pre-dated his tenure as chief, which began 2 1/2 years ago.

One member who resigned as a result of an alcohol-related violation rejoined the department and “is doing very well,” Wharton said.

Dale King, the department’s operations captain, has remained with the department after pleading guilty in Frederick County General District Court to drunken driving. Judge William Eldridge IV ordered King’s driver’s license suspended for a year. Eldridge made an exception for when King drives his own vehicle to and from the fire station while answering emergency calls.

Wharton said the department prohibits anyone from driving an emergency vehicle for seven years after a drunken driving conviction, a rule that will be enforced against King.

“I’m very strict about that,” Wharton said.

Wharton said the department has continued to perform at a high level, despite the controversy stirred by the accusations in the letters.

As of early November, the department had fielded 500 calls for the year, only one of which had to be answered by a fire company from another jurisdiction.

“Other than that, we’ve answered every call we were dispatched to,” Wharton said.

Wharton is also encouraged by the arrival of new volunteers in the last few months. Several more volunteers are in the training pipeline.

Richard Orndorff, a town council member who served a lengthy tenure with the town’s ambulance service, said a recent update received by the Town Council gave him hope that the problems described by Rothstein, Frazier and Polk are being fixed.

“I feel better,” Orndorff said. “I think some of the financial accusations that were made have been put to rest. There were some things that were not factual that they were able to answer.

“And, of course, there were some things that were genuine concerns. I think they are making every effort to address those.”

The all-volunteer department receives only a small percentage of its financial support from public funding, which limits the Town Council’s authority over management and operations.

Council member Don Le Vine was more reserved than Orndorff in assessing the department’s response to the controversy.

Le Vine said the department’s ability to respond to all but one call within its jurisdiction is not the whole story in determining how well it is performing.

Le Vine said he is waiting for other data that will show whether firefighters are working effectively once they reach a fire scene.

“If they do and respond appropriately, we’ll be happy to give them credit for fixing whatever problems exist,” Le Vine said. “If they don’t, we’ll have to look at the next reasonable step.”

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