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Editorial: Leadership emergency at fire department
County needs right management at helm in wake of scandals

If the name had not already been used, “sex, lies and videotape” would be an appropriate choice for the title of a docudrama about the county’s beleaguered fire department over the past several months. Were the subject matter not so serious, the details would make such a production a comedy of epic proportions, something akin to “Police Academy” for the fire brigades.

Except, despite the ludicrousness of some of what we learned, there’s nothing to laugh about.

Last Sunday we detailed how a former arson investigator convinced a former fire chief that he was under covert surveillance, with the investigator going so far as to fake the removal of a listening device from the chief’s vehicle, and pretending to throw into Lake Lanier nonexistent cameras that were supposed to have been mounted on trees and aimed at the chief’s house, but in fact didn’t exist.

You can’t make this stuff up folks.

Sadly, that event from two years ago, details of which just became public with the investigator’s conviction and sentencing, is just one example of a seeming plague of unprofessional, boorish and juvenile behavior that seems to have permeated the upper ranks of fire department management in recent years.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at some of the fire department lowlights from the recent past:

August 2014 – Fire Chief David Kimbrell is relieved of command of the fire department, a victim of the county’s decision to buy a fire truck known to have mechanical problems, which ultimately led to the injury of three firemen. Kimbrell is retained, however, as head of the county’s Emergency Management Agency. Jeff Hood is his successor as fire chief.

April 2016 – Hood reports to the county sheriff’s office that he is being spied upon by parties unknown, leading to the investigation that reveals as a culprit Arson Investigator Dax Lewis, who ultimately admits he made the whole thing up. The investigation into the fake surveillance involved detectives, deputies, the county’s dive team and members of a multicounty task force, all of whom assuredly had better things to do than chase non-existent boogey men because of a tall tale spun by a gun-carrying arson investigator.

October 2017 – Kimbrell is fired from his position with the county’s Emergency Management Agency after videos surface of sexual improprieties between him and subordinates in the fire department. The videos, along with other porn, were backed up to county servers from Kimbrell’s personal computer.

October 2017 – On the heels of Kimbrell’s termination, Hood, who previously had replaced Kimbrell as fire chief, suddenly vacates his position, offering no explanation beyond a terse letter of resignation.

December 2017 – Skip Heflin, an assistant fire chief embroiled in a sexual harassment complaint involving a subordinate in the department, submits a notice of retirement that will be effective in February 2018, then works no more for the county, drawing some $14,000 for doing nothing. The county in that case had its hands tied because the alleged victim of the harassment had died and was not available to add legitimacy to the complaint, which was brought on her behalf by others after her death.

All of the above happened during a turbulent period in the department that saw many of its employees complain of management issues, poor morale, inexplicable personnel decisions and general malfeasance at various levels of the organization. Some of those employees worked together to author a 72-page letter of grievances, allegations and complaints about the department and how it was being run.

We can only hope that letter, the issues raised by the employees, and changes in both county and fire department administration now have things on the right track and the ugly and sordid events of recent history are stories for the archives that won’t be repeated in the years to come.

The department is currently without a permanent chief and has been since Hood’s departure Oct. 31. Mark Arnold was appointed as interim chief at that time, and continues to serve in that capacity. 

The county has shown no urgency in filling the position, and given the effort necessary to remove recent stains from the department’s reputation, it seems more important to be sure in selecting the right leader than rushing to fill the position just for the sake of doing so.

To his credit, county manager Jock Connell does seem to be taking the complaints and concerns of rank-and-file employees seriously, having conducted numerous one-on-one interviews with members of the department in preparation for launching a formal search for a new chief in the months to come.

One of the common themes throughout the grievance letter were ongoing efforts to cover up inappropriate actions by those at various management levels within the department, as well as elements of paranoia and conspiracy found within the management team. We can only hope new leadership for the department has resulted in more openness at all levels, and a willingness to address personnel and morale issues in a proactive manner rather than trying to find rugs under which to sweep problems.

What’s really sad is that the poor behavior and bad decisions by a few people at the top of the management chain has overshadowed the exceptional work done by the rank and file within the department, men and women who willingly risk their lives for those they serve in the community.