The Highland Fire Department doubled in size at a special council meeting July 10.
Seven of 11 firefighters signed a resignation letter June 30. But, after clearing the air with the council, four rescinded their resignations and promised to come back to the department, chalking up the recent bout of hard feelings to miscommunication between the department and the council.
"They (firefighters) thought they were doing right (by resigning). You guys (the council) thought you were doing right. It was just miscommunication," said firefighter Larry Cross.
Aldermen Clyde Fisher and Larry Allen were blamed by the department for the resignations after the council unanimously voted June 27 to have the two aldermen perform an inventory of the department's equipment and to compare the number of runs Fire Chief Doug Wortham reported with the number of runs recorded by Sharp County Central Dispatch.
Jennine Eash, an EMT, first responder and firefighter, served as spokesman for the fire department for the first 35 minutes of the meeting and asked for the resignations of Fisher and Allen and a public apology. The two didn't resign and Eash left 35 minutes into the meeting.
"I haven't done anything wrong and I haven't accused anyone of anything," Allen said. "I'm not resigning."
Eash said Fisher had made "mean and unjustified" statements about her husband, Tim Eash Jr., son of former Highland Fire Chief Tim Eash. She said those statements are untrue.
Fisher said Wortham had recommended both Tim Eash Jr. and Jennine Eash to replace him as chief. "My main concern was you (Jennine Eash) are out on runs all day (with Spring River Paramedic Ambulance Service) and he's in Paragould."
Fisher said he thinks it makes more sense to have Assistant Chief Jim Hunt take over as chief in Wortham's absence rather than the Eashes.
Alderman David Harris, who said the situation wasn't handled properly by Fisher and Allen at the time the majority of the department resigned, said July 10 everyone acted hastily including himself. He said the two aldermen were only carrying out the request of the council.
Harris said he was disappointed that the firefighters didn't come to him first before resigning.
Sharp County Emergency Management Coordinator Pete Reilly, who also serves as county fire coordinator, attended the July 10 meeting. He said he thinks part of the miscommunication comes from the firefighters not staying informed.
A show of hands revealed that no firefighters had attended or watched the June 27 council meeting on channel 6.
"If every one of you had viewed that I think you would have a different understanding," Reilly said.
At that meeting the council reviewed requests submitted for Wortham and firefighter John Olsen Wolverton to receive run pay early. Firefighters are paid each fall, but Wortham's last day with the department was slated for June 30 before he left to travel to Iraq with the National Guard. Wolverton plans to enter basic training in August.
The council decided in late 2005 to pay all firemen $10 per run and $5 per fire meeting they attend, said Recorder/treasurer Mary Ruth Wiles. The council also approved paying Wortham an additional $50 per run, she said. That pay is capped at $3,000 a year.
The council decided on the inventory and records check in preparation of Wortham's leaving.
Before the records check and inventory began Wortham met with Fisher, Allen and city Code Enforcement Officer Ralph Sharp June 29 in an unpublicized meeting. After a heated discussion, Fisher and Allen said they thought things went well when they performed a walk-through inventory with Wortham at the fire station.
"We appreciate the fire department very much," Fisher said at the July 10 meeting called by Harris and Aldermen Shawn Reed and Jerome Norwood. "When I walked through with Doug to get an inventory we didn't even bring any papers."
Harris said he had spoken to Wortham during a ceremony honoring firefighter William J. Thompson at the fire station June 28. During that conversation Harris told Wortham the council had voted to conduct an inventory of the department.
"It seems to me like you would want that," Harris said. "If I had a position of authority and I was over people I would want an inventory. Regardless of what you firefighters think, that's good business. It wasn't (because) we didn't trust him (Wortham)."
Eash said the only inventory that should have been conducted was Wortham's gear since he was the only one who was leaving the department at that time. Firefighters are responsible for their own gear, she said.
"He is responsible, as your chief, for all the equipment in the fire department," Alderman Denise Gibbons said.
Fisher said the inventory revealed a need for new and updated equipment. One thing that alarmed him was the lack of supplies in the medical cabinet, he said. Wortham told him the department doesn't have medical supplies because the council wouldn't approve the purchase, Fisher said.
Hunt told the council medical supplies were in the proposed budget for 2006 but were cut by the city council in budget session. Reed said that although the council made cuts, the fire department's budget was almost double what it was in previous years. Radios were included in that budget, although the department has yet to purchase them.
Wiles said the city hoped to conduct a reverse Internet auction for the purchase of radios but later found out it couldn't be done. After that Wortham missed several meetings, she said. Wortham was to bring the specifications for the radios to the council but never did, Harris said.
Reilly said he has the radio situation handled. He has secured an unspecified number of pagers for the fire department through state funding, he said. The exact date when they will arrive is not known.
Fisher said a variety of issues need to be addressed, including updating equipment and keeping paperwork in City Hall, such as fingerprints, as required by ordinance.
"We're all at fault right here as councilmen for not picking up on it," Fisher said.
A city ordinance calls for the mayor to appoint a fire chief. But Mayor David Shackelford hasn't attended a council meeting in several months.
Fisher said the fire department at large needs to elect a chief. The council voted unanimously to review the ordinance with the fire department and amend it as needed.
"There are two sides to the story, guys," Harris said. He said that on June 30, the day Allen and Fisher traveled from City Hall to Sharp County Central Dispatch, Wortham called Central Dispatch before the aldermen arrived and told dispatchers not to release the run information to them. Allen still has not obtained the records, Harris said.
Firefighter Steven Davis said most people who are interested in joining the fire department usually change their minds because of inadequate equipment. He said the Eashes are great assets to the department but the two, plus firefighter Braden Ables, probably won't come back to the department.
"The last thing we asked Doug is, 'Is there anything you all need? How is the equipment doing?'" Harris said. "His last words were everything is running tip top. We hear one thing and you all are telling us something else. What are we supposed to do?"
Hunt was directed to gather a list of firefighters who have agreed to return to the department and a list of equipment and supplies needed.
"We're going to start over new and fresh," Fisher said. "No more of these problems."
Allen said as a council member his responsibility lies not only with the fire department, but also with the taxpayers.
"Keep in mind ... we're not the federal government. We can't go trillions of dollars in debt," Allen said. "I admire your position. I appreciate what you do, but I would appreciate it if you appreciate what I do."
Reilly said the city's Act 833 funds are in jeopardy without an operable fire department.
He said the four firefighters who did not resign could not operate the entire department. Regulations require 10 to 12 firefighters on the department so a minimum of four respond to each call, he said.
The council voted to direct Reilly and Hunt to make sure the department has the necessary equipment to return to active status. If all is in order, the department can be active again within days.