Town officials trying to confirm status of fire chief
Over a week has passed since Strasburg Fire Department Chief Dale King, along with five other firefighters, was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The department has not stated if King is still acting chief or if an interim chief has been appointed.
According to an interview King held with the Northern Virginia Daily in November, all six firefighters should automatically have been put on administrative leave.
“We have a policy, if anybody is charged with any crime, they automatically go on administrative leave, which means they’re not allowed to participate in any department activities, represent the fire department or work calls,” King said at the time.
As of this article’s publication, it is unclear if any of the six firefighters charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor are on active duty.
Repeated calls to the department’s headquarters and to members of the department’s board of directors either went unanswered or resulted in referrals to Glenn Mason, president of the department’s board of directors.
Mason, however, did not respond to repeated phone calls, emails, or visits to his home address. He also did not respond to notes requesting comment that were left on his front door.
Strasburg Mayor Richard Orndorff said it is his understanding, based on conversations with members of the community and Strasburg Town Manager Wyatt Pearson, who has been in touch with Mason, that the six firefighters are indeed on administrative leave.
“I did not get this direct from the fire department, this is just what I have heard: I have heard that, yes, the president put all of them on administrative leave,” Orndorff said. “As far as the acting chief, I know that they had elections at the end of 2017, so I’m not sure who was placed into, say, the assistant chief position, so I really couldn’t answer who the officers are, who the acting chief is right now.”
He added, “I have not been told that directly by anyone in any authority in the fire department.”
Pearson confirmed that Mason had told him the six accused firefighters were on administrative leave. He also said he heard that Austin Cucciardo was elected to the position of assistant fire chief, making him the acting fire chief in King’s absence, but that information did not come directly from Mason.
“The town doesn’t have any governance over them (the Fire Department), or how they organize. I can only tell you what I’ve heard,” Pearson said. “They recently elected him assistant chief, and that makes him the acting chief, as I understand it, while Dale King is on administrative leave. I don’t believe they’ve taken any action to replace Dale with anybody. It’s all hearsay from around town.”
As a registered nonprofit company, Strasburg Fire Department Inc., is not subject to the same transparency laws as a government-run department would be. Transitioning to a non-volunteer, town-run fire department would yield greater transparency, but at a significant financial cost to the town.
“I’m going to say, from my personal standpoint, I don’t know that the taxpayers of Strasburg can afford a town-run fire department,” Orndorff said. “I don’t believe that that would be viable.”
The Fire Department’s expenses in 2015, the latest year for which data is available, totaled $97,000. The department’s financial documents cited fighting fires, training members and maintenance as the bulk of the expenses.
Since the department is exclusively volunteer-run, this figure includes no payroll costs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median salary of a single paid firefighter in 2016 was $48,000.
Orndorff stated that he has been meeting with the county administrator, the chairman of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors and the Strasburg town manager to consider the town’s options.
“We are looking at what we can do, and how we could maybe exercise more oversight, possibly, or at least work with the new department leadership,” he said.
Orndorff also stated that the town’s No. 1 priority is to ensure the area is provided with adequate fire service, and that currently the town is satisfied with the department’s performance.
“Right now we are comfortable with that,” he said. “That is not a concern right now.”
The six firefighters, according to a search warrant executed during the investigation of an alleged gang rape of a 17-year-old girl that was shared on the mobile app Snapchat, were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor charge.
A hearing for the firefighters has been set for 9 a.m. Thursday in the Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
“This is not reflective of the entire town of Strasburg, it is not reflective of the entire Strasburg Fire Department, and it’s not reflective of volunteerism in the community or in the area,” Orndorff said. “It’s just a very unfortunate, sad, serious situation.
“In Strasburg, there’s a great community. We’ve been a great community and, you know, we’ll continue to be a great community.”
Reporter Max Lee contributed to the reporting of this story.