Removal of chief sets off mass firefighter exodus from Dammeron Valley Fire District

The Dammeron Valley Fire Station after heavy rains doused the region, Washington County, Utah, July 14, 2018 | File photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The forced resignation of the Dammeron Valley Fire Chief has set off a series of mass departures of firefighters and emergency board meetings that have been standing room only as residents voiced their concerns over a number of decisions made by the Dammeron Valley Fire Special Service District Board.

The decision that set the loss of the majority of the district’s volunteer firefighters in motion took place after the Dammeron Valley board meeting held Dec. 4, where it was decided that Dammeron Valley Fire Chief Kevin Dye would no longer be acting as chief and indicated that Dye needed to sign a resignation letter and return it to the board. He refused to sign it.

When he returned to the station the following day, the locks had already been changed, Dye said.

Since then, several volunteer firefighters have since resigned or have not signed an agreement that was issued in January, which was required if they wished to remain on the department. Other than one firefighter who also serves on the board, all existing firefighters have since left the department.

Over the last several weeks, the board has had a series of scheduled work and emergency meetings to address the issues that have presented themselves in the wake of the shift in leadership.

Reasons behind Chief Dye’s removal 

The only reason given to Dye at the time was that he had allowed the certifications of a number of volunteers to expire, along with the expiration of safety equipment and issues with fire hydrant inspections not being completed.

2019 file photo of Dammeron Valley Fire and Rescue responds to an early-morning rollover on Gunlock Road, Washington County, Utah, June 2, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Dammeron Valley Fire and Rescue, St. George News

The letter to Dye from the board stated there were concerns “about leadership and the safety of our department,” which included the lack of safety and proper communication, the lack of a qualified chief, honest communication between the board and the firefighters and the conflict of interest of firefighters serving on the board.

Dye said as far as the hydrant inspections go, his volunteer firefighters were participating in extensive training during that time. He also said they were waiting until April to complete the fire hydrant testing due to water flow and freezing issues, adding waiting until spring is a standard practice.

He also told the board Nov. 12 that he would need additional manpower to complete the testing, as the entire crew, including himself, were employed full time. He said there were time constraints with the additional training they were dealing with.

As far as the certifications go, Dye said, there was an issue with the certification requirements not being made available, which he had not been advised of until that meeting, and he had the issue resolved with the state of Utah less than a week later.

“That was an issue with the state, which they resolved internally, and I was able to get confirmation of those certifications that were already on file,” he said.

The expiration of the safety equipment had been brought up to the board for more than a year, Dye said, well before the final date, and to his understanding a grant was going to cover the costs to bring the equipment current. The issue was brought before the board in October, according to the board minutes, and Dye again brought the issue up during the Nov. 12 meeting, but the issue was not resolved during either meeting.

During the Nov. 12 meeting, the minutes state, “Chief Dye expressed the need for new (high-pressured masks) as the current ones are 20 years old and do not fit properly,” which was when board member Gabe Bilek stated, “He wants every foreman to have his own high-pressure mask.” Dye added that “the bottles are expiring as well.” Another board member, Don Stingley, said he would “like to do it before the end of December.”

According to financial records dated Nov. 12, there was more than $200,000 in the accounts — nearly $135,000 in the checking and another $70,000 in a money market account.

Board president’s response 

Board President Amanda Ballif told St. George News on Feb. 5 that she would not expound on what led up to the resignation letter being sent to Dye but did say the board has gone through extensive efforts to organize the chief’s office and get all of the files updated. She also said, “We are looking forward to moving ahead with the department and have high expectations at this time.”

Concerned citizens addresses Dammeron Valley Fire Special Service District Board during board meeting, Dammeron Valley, Utah, Feb. 12, 2020 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News..

Ballif was appointed as interim chief with no firefighting or EMS experience or training soon after Dye was removed from the position, and approximately two months after her assignment, the volunteers began dropping off the rosters. Ballif resigned from that position Feb. 5, which was also confirmed through the audio recording of the board meeting held later that same day.

During the meeting, Ballif said that she resigned “in the best interest of the fire district,” adding that her service as interim chief was due to “an emergency.”

Fire Captain Don Wallace said during a board meeting Jan. 5, that the fire department was promised a “sit down with the board to discuss what happened, how it happened and why it happened with the fire chief,” to which Ballif responded by saying guidelines needed to be followed so as to not open the board up to litigation.

Ballif responded by saying, “Kevin Dye is no longer with the department, and that’s all that can be said.”

Appointing a second interim chief

Ballif also made the recommendation for her replacement, a certified paramedic, saying, “I would like her to replace me in this interim position” and then added that the board “should talk about personnel issues in a closed meeting,” which is very often the case regarding personnel issues. Ultimately the board unanimously voted to approved the interim chief.

The interim chief will be paid $499 per month by the board, along with a $100 stipend. That decision was based on the fact that anything over the $499 would require board approval, she said in the meeting, so by adding the stipend the actual salary is still below that amount.

This is a first for the Dammeron Valley Fire Department, which has had a volunteer fire chief since the department’s inception.

The volunteer firefighter agreement 

Several weeks after the chief was sent the resignation letter, the volunteers received a seven-page agreement outlining their responsibilities and the department’s expectations, which each volunteer was required to sign to maintain their position on the fire department.

During the Feb. 5 meeting, a resident asked why there was a new fire chief, to which Ballif replied, “Because that’s what the board decided.” Another resident asked, “Why did the whole fire crew quit?”

The Dammeron Valley Fire Special Service District Board holds board meeting to packed room, Dammeron Valley, Utah, Feb. 12, 2020 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News.

At that point Ballif said she was still answering the first question and told the resident that asked the second question, “Either there will be order, or you’ll be out of order.” 

The resident then said, “As of this moment, we don’t have a fire department.” 

That appeared to be the case as far as existing firefighters, which was made clear during the board meeting held a week later, when on Feb. 5, board member Don Stingley said, “We don’t have one resignation from any of our firefighters. We have had no equipment returned.” Stingley then turned to the two firefighters that were in attendance and asked, “Are you guys still working with us? Or did you quit? “

Both firefighters resigned during that meeting.

Two new firefighters signed on during that meeting, but due to varying reports, discussions, closed meetings and so on, a verified number has not been made available.

Diamond Valley Fire Department and surrounding fire agencies are providing mutual aid to ensure coverage for Dammeron Valley residents until further notice, Ballif said.

Campaign to recruit a new fire chief 

During the Feb. 5 meeting, it was also announced that the board would be “conducting a nationwide search for a new fire chief” for a community of just over 800 residents in an area that covers about 12 square miles.

The board also announced the fire chief position would become a paid position, as opposed to the volunteer position that it has been since the department’s inception.

Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox told St. George News the commissioners are aware of the situation in Dammeron Valley and are there to support the efforts of the board “which is an elected board,” adding that the last thing the county wants to do is to interrupt the board’s efforts to establish a fire department that will best serve the community. He said it would not be appropriate to jump in and take action at this point.

Cox said he met with the board and is working to assist them in their efforts.

Residents reach out to Washington County commissioners 

According to an email sent Feb. 5 to Cox from a resident who has lived in Dammeron Valley for more than four decades, the departure of Dye was “quite a surprise in light of his long history of dedicated service to our community.”

The resident closed by saying, “We encourage you to investigate the context of this sudden change in fire department leadership and the impact on our volunteers and their ability to perform. Please work to resolve this situation so Dammeron Valley can recover our excellent first responder/firefighting leadership and team.”

In an email response the same day, Cox said the commissioners “have received some information and we are currently trying to avail ourselves of what the actual situation is on the ground in Dammeron Valley,” adding that it is a situation the county commissioners “of course take very seriously.” He also said he would need some time to “adequately investigate the complaints” and did not want to jump to any conclusions until he has had a chance to do so.

Ed. note: Parts of this report were clarified after initial publication. The exact number of firefighters who quit has yet to be determined by St. George News, but the majority is confirmed to have resigned. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Don Wallace as a board member. The report was also clarified to indicate that Ballif recommended rather than chose her interim replacement.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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