Flare up at Berkeley Springs Fire Company
Five members of the board of directors for the Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Company resigned last week. Several of them blamed their departure on a continuing internal battle over the use of department vehicles.
Board President Dennis Kesecker, Vice President Jay McCarty and member Marshall Younker confirmed that they quit during a meeting on Monday, August 8 because of a fight about how the company’s non-emergency vehicles were being used by the Fire Chief J.J. Steiner and his son, Assistant Chief James Steiner.
Chief Steiner, a 33-year member who leads the operation side of the fire company, insists the vehicles are under his command as chief and their use was legitimately related to the company’s administrative and firefighting operations.
“The fire company has an internal problem,” Kesecker said.
Kesecker said he and other board members have been trying to curtail personal use of the company’s two Chevy Suburbans since April.
Board members were concerned that the Suburbans may have been driven by members to work and on personal business, such as grocery shopping and family travel.
According to Kesecker, the vehicles are meant to be parked at the fire station and used for official business only. This can include accident assistance, public education, funeral detail and getting meals for volunteers working at the station.
The concerns persisted, even after the board issued an executive order outlining how vehicles could be used by volunteer members.
The board’s April 18 order stated: “Personal use of company vehicles is not acceptable.”
Marshall Younker, a 19-year veteran of the fire company, heard similar complaints.
“We were catching grief from the public,” Younker said.
In a May 25 email to Assistant Fire Marshall Anthony Carrico, Kesecker said the comments were persistent.
“When you have people from the community that are making comments to members about the chief and the assistant chief having company vehicles for them to use personally, then there is a problem,” Kesecker wrote.
But Chief Steiner disagrees.
“I believe the vehicle use is justified, and the use of the vehicle is under the operation section of the fire company,” he told The Morgan Messenger on Monday.
Steiner said the Suburbans have been used to transport volunteers to training around the state, to pick up drivers when they take fire apparatus out of the area for repair, and to collect supplies for fire company functions.
Steiner said the Suburbans have also been used by himself and others to do local errands for the company.
Policies fall flat
Former board member Younker recounted multiple efforts by board members since March to address the vehicle concerns in house.
He said Chief Steiner was invited to write a policy that would have allowed fire line officers like the chief and assistant chief to use the Suburbans as a Duty Officer Vehicle when on call.
“If you want a Duty Officer vehicle, that’s okay – just write a policy,” Younker said.
As of last week, no such policy had been drafted, he said.
Steiner agreed that a policy needs to be written. He said he is actively gathering examples of those kinds of policies from other departments to use as a model.
Crossing territory lines?
Younker said the April executive order about vehicle use was met with resistance by the line officers, who thought the rules over-reached into their territory.
The chief and his line officers are in charge of all fire apparatus and vehicles during a fire incident. So, Steiner felt a policy about the vehicles should come from his side of the department, not the administrative side.
Kesecker insisted that board members, as financial and administrative officers of the non-profit fire company, can and should make rules about how the company’s property is used.
His concern, he said, is not just the cost of gas for the vehicles, but the insurance and liability of the vehicle, driver or passengers during unauthorized use of the vehicles.
“Members are supposed to donate their time and skills with no expectation of compensation,” Kesecker said.
After talking with an attorney in May, Kesecker and other board members asked the West Virginia State Police to investigate the use of fire company vehicles as a criminal matter.
State Police Sgt. Scott Davis of the Berkeley Springs Detachment confirmed the investigation request. He said the case didn’t wind up with criminal charges, because there was a minimal amount of evidence provided by board members.
“It appears to be more of an administrative or civil matter,” Davis said.
Other than the initial complaint, his investigators haven’t been furnished with dollar figures for how much the personal vehicle use has cost the department or other specifics, Davis said.
Kesecker said it has been hard to pin down how much the Suburbans have been used outside of fire company business, in part because the department doesn’t keep vehicle logs or records of use for non-fire-fighting equipment.
In July, State Police turned over the complaint and evidence to Morgan County Prosecutor Debra McLaughlin for review.
“We don’t have enough information at this time to proceed with a case,” McLaughlin told The Messenger on Friday.
Board members and line officers have both turned to the State Fire Marshal, as well.
Assistant State Fire Marshal Anthony Carrico confirmed that his office had been contacted by the Berkeley Springs Fire Company about the subject.
“We told them, in our opinion, there was or could be improper use of a vehicle,” Carrico said on Monday.
But Carrico said the Fire Marshal’s Office lacks jurisdiction over the internal administration of a fire company, and cannot intervene.
Younker and Kesecker both expressed regret that the issue has given the fire company “a black eye,” but said they were motivated by a desire to make sure equipment supported by public money was being used properly. They wanted to reassure community residents that their concerns are being taken seriously.
Calls being answered
Firefighters are still “going to training, going to parades, working at the fire house. Nothing has changed on the operation side,” said Chief Steiner.
He didn’t anticipate that the vehicle use dispute would impact the company’s ability or willingness to answer fire or emergency calls. “It hasn’t so far and I don’t think it’s going to,” he said.
Without a board of directors, the Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Company will struggle to conduct some of its administrative business, according to Kesecker and Younker.
The members will hold their next meeting on Monday evening, August 22, and may be faced with an election.
They will have to replace all board members except Treasurer Rodney Kelley or they won’t be able to conduct a meeting.
Despite coming down on opposite ends of the clash, both sides expressed their disappointment that the matter couldn’t be worked out internally, without causing hard feelings.
“We have tried to discuss it internally, but I left the meeting with the feeling that there’s no working together,” said Kesecker.
“We’ve tried to take care of it, but couldn’t,” he said.