November 25, 2014

Medina
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34°F

Firefighters protest Valley City fire chief for ‘lack of leadership’

More than a third of the Valley City Fire Department has signed a “no-confidence” petition criticizing Fire Chief Jack Petrone for “lack of leadership and decision-making.”

The petition, submitted to the Liverpool Township trustees Monday, complained of poor morale that has resulted in a shrinking staff and slow response times to fires and medical emergencies since Petrone became chief in 2011.

The petition asks the trustees to remove Petrone and appoint Assistant Chief Greg Smith to serve until trustees can interview and appoint a new chief. The petition also warns that if the trustees don’t take action, members of the department will be forced to take unspecified “further action.”

The trustees dismissed the petition as the reaction of a handful of disgruntled firefighters upset by changes Petrone has made to make the department more professional.

“There’s a few people who have a problem,” Trustee Jim Crocker said. “It’s a free country and if they want to leave, they can leave.”

Crocker said he stood behind Petrone “100 percent.”

The two other trustees, Paul Schaefer and Cathy Keller, also signaled their support of Petrone, but declined to comment on the petition after Monday’s meeting.

“There were a couple people who were unhappy we had someone dismissed,” Crocker said. “There’s some sour grapes and most of this stuff revolves around that.”

The petition was signed by 13 active members of the department and five former members. Douglas Borling, who signed the petition, had his resignation letter accepted by the trustees at the meeting.

Borling said he enjoyed serving his community but thought his training over the past year or so had been inadequate under Petrone.

“It was never about the money for me,” said Borling, who served about eight years on the department. “It was about getting training and doing service for the community. They’re trying to run it like a business.”

Borling said he thinks he can do more to help the community and highlight the department issues now that he can’t be threatened with a reprimand for speaking out.

“I feel I can do more now, as a civilian, than being on the department,” Borling said.

More than 10 members of the department agreed to be interviewed by a Gazette reporter several weeks ago but asked that their names not be used, saying they feared they would be fired.

“A lot of people don’t want to work there anymore,” one firefighter said. “There is no morale.”

Eighteen months ago, the “on call” squad had more than 50 active members and now they have about 35, he said.

Among the concerns listed by firefighters who signed the petition included the response times for calls, which have exceeded 40 minutes in a few cases as the ranks are whittled down by people who chose to leave the department or said they were “forced” out by Petrone.

“People think oh, you call 911, and someone will respond right away. Well, we’re getting to the point where that may not be the case anymore,” a firefighter said.

Petrone disputed the criticism, saying response times are no different than other communities.

“The insinuation that we have a longer response time isn’t accurate,” he said.

Petrone agreed with trustees that his effort to make the department more professional was the reason some of the firefighters are upset.

“We’re giving residents the service of a 19-member department, and we’re doing it on a budget of $300,000,” Petrone said.

The chief also disputed questions about his qualifications raised in the petition.

“In comparison to surrounding Medina County departments, the current chief’s qualifications are minimal at best, or absent,” the petition states.

“How can effective leadership and direction be administered when our top decision maker has the minimum fire safety certification and NO medical training at all,” the petition says.

Petrone said received his emergency medical training in Illinois, where he moved to after getting his 36-hour minimum certification from the state of Ohio when he joined the department in 1977.

When he returned to the Valley City Fire Department, he never expected to serve as fire chief. When the position opened up, he was qualified under state law. He said he saw no reason to pursue additional certification.

“When I came back, I was almost 60 years old, I was getting ready to retire. I thought I don’t need all those certifications,” said Petrone, who now is 67.

Firefighters said they would have had even more signatures on the petition, but members were told they faced termination if they signed their names to the document.

Harvey Hartman, the oldest and one of the longest-serving members of the department, approached the board with the petition Monday night and spoke briefly, although though he was interrupted by a warning from Trustee Crocker for stepping out of the chain of command.

“Harvey, you are aware you’re violating the chain of command,” Crocker said.

“So be it,” Hartman responded. “The citizens are upset. They ask me what’s going on and I’m not even allowed to talk about it.”

Hartman wasn’t the only longtime member who lent his signature to the petition. Included on the petition is the signature of former Valley City Fire Chief Mario D’Amico, who served on the department for more than 30 years before his retirement in 2011.

Petrone said no members would be fired specifically for signing the petition, but said township trustees could decide to remove them from the force.

“The trustees are the ones who hire and fire people,” Petrone said.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.