By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 17, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
County to follow up on claims made by 36-year veteran Foster
PRINCE GEORGE – Allegations of bullying and harassment within the ranks of the county’s combined fire and EMS department prompted one of its longtime volunteers to speak to county leaders and ask them to take action.
During their first meeting of 2019, the Prince George Board of Supervisors heard from Kevin Foster, but not in his role as a member of the county school board. Instead, as a volunteer firefighter in the county who recently completed his 36th year of volunteer fire service to Prince George.
In his nearly ten-minute remarks during the meeting’s public comments period, Foster said he and a number of other volunteers are concerned about the department’s state of affairs when it comes to “day-to-day management, counterproductive management, financial, physical, and human resource mismanagement” of the fire and EMS department while also expressing concern about a perceived culture of bullying and harassment of volunteer firefighters by paid career staff.
“I am disappointed that I am part of a system that encourages paid employees to bully, harass, and file false allegations against us and those folks are rewarded with jobs, promotions, and overtime,” Foster said to supervisors.
He added, “I am disappointed that paid employees are allowed to criticize and take cheap shots at volunteers with social media posts, social media shares, and even face-to-face bullying of our young volunteers.”
One of those alleged social media posts was a link to an article published by firefighting industry news website Leatherhead Mafia entitled, “Is it time to require volunteer chiefs to pass knowledge-based testing?”
That article, dated Jan. 5, 2019, featured the author’s interactions with others in the volunteer firefighting community and their experiences within their department while seeking to “provoke thoughtful discussion” on the issue of electing volunteer fire chiefs into office, noting the subject matter can “be a very controversial topic” but, the author believed the conversation could yield the answer to the question.
The post on Facebook, which did not have a timestamp of when exactly it was posted, did not have any additional text, like a message from the person sharing the article on social media.
Without going into specifics, Foster also stated the structure of the combined fire and EMS system has given “an unreasonable and unjustified authority to one individual and created an environment where volunteers are not considered valued or considered equal to those collecting a paycheck.”
In the past, the county operated under a split system for fire and EMS services where the volunteer staffers were on hand to provide their services to the community, with the county eventually paying personnel to fill the gaps during the days and nights where volunteers weren’t able to provide that coverage.
As such, when the combined system was created and formally adopted by the county, that system created the position of Fire/EMS director, which is charged with overseeing and directing the entire department. In this case, the combined fire and EMS department is under the direction of Brad Owens.
Owens’ role as the director of Fire and EMS is similar to County Administrator Percy Ashcraft and how he oversees the entire county government operation.
Foster’s concerns went further, noting that he is disappointed that “management has allowed daily operational decisions by employees that allow freelancing and, at times, have placed employees and the general public in harm’s way by racing apparatus to calls that shouldn’t even be on the road.”
He went on to say that the culture of the department has shifted to become that which “hides behind policy instead of communicating to those with facts and knowledge.”
“We have volunteers with vast book knowledge as well as vast experience when it comes to the fire service but, we have a culture now that says, ‘We do it this way now,'” Foster said.
He also questioned the staffing decisions made by the department, ranging from paramedic placement at specific stations, to the character traits of some who have been employed with the department.
“There are a number of highly qualified and respected employees in this system, but like any organization, there are a handful of toxic employees who don’t have the county or citizens’ best interests at heart,” Foster detailed. “Several have been hired who are known troublemakers and proven liars and they continue to keep the pot stirred up and are rewarded for doing so.”
Before stepping away from the podium, Foster urged supervisors to consider creating a subcommittee within the county’s fire and EMS advisory board to “changes to the existing county ordinance” and hold a public hearing on the matter to “initiate positive change that will make the system better for career and volunteer staff alike.”
“I recognize that I am not the future of the fire service,” Foster remarked, “But I still have the energy and drive to contribute to its success. We need to do what needs to be done to secure the future and not spend our way recklessly into the future. I know you know that we don’t have the money to continue to pump money into a system that is flawed.”
“Let’s give the citizens an improved system for their tax dollars,” he closed.
Foster declined to expand upon his comments from last week’s meeting, thanking the media for inquiring but he “didn’t have any additional [information] to share at this time other than what was presented Tuesday night.”
The public comments period of the meeting does not traditionally entertain comments from supervisors or county officials. After the meeting, County Administrator Ashcraft discussed Foster’s comments, opting not to address each of the allegations specifically.
“He has a right as a citizen and as a longtime firefighter to express his opinions and what he views as concerns,” he said. “We will take what he said to heart and look into strengthening our fire and EMS organization by not only talking to him and his company, we will also be reaching out to the other companies to see if there are similar concerns.”
When asked, Ashcraft said this is one of the first times a matter like this involving volunteer firefighters has come before the board in this manner.
“I have been here almost eight years now and I guess this is the first time that this point of view has been so strongly stated,” he said. “There is certainly a daily dialogue with the volunteer companies as well as our career personnel. If there are some things that we have to address, we will address them and I think the board of supervisors expects that to happen.”
Ashcraft added, while the combined fire and EMS department’s operations go through the director and Brad Owens, the volunteers do “maintain their own individual companies” and deal with their own personnel matters.
“When it comes to the organization and who’s in charge, it clearly states in the ordinance that the director now has that authority,” he said.
For Ashcraft, he said the next step is to look into what has been stated and determine the next course of action.
“I am a champion for transparency and free speech and if someone is dissatisfied with something and they feel they need to come forward and let not only me but the board of supervisors know, I will always fight for their right to do that,” he remarked. “He had our ear, we listened and we will react accordingly. This is not something we will ignore.”
He closed, “I think the board expects us to follow up on some of the things that were said and we’re going to do that.”