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Small-town mayor plays with fire at residents' expense

Disbanding the entire fire department on a whim leaves all 196 Onslow, Iowa residents at risk

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

You'd think at this point we wouldn't be surprised when a politician goes completely off the rails. Then comes this story out of Onslow, Iowa about its mayor, who up and fired his entire nine-person volunteer fire department.

Even with Onslow Mayor Curtis Thornhill's "effective in 30 days" caveat, I'm baffled by the sheer irresponsibility of such a move.

According to its own website, Onslow is "a friendly little town of 196 people" with two churches, one club, 15 retail businesses and a claim to fame that it is the only Onslow in the United States.

The town's name may be unique; that they are having what appears to be petty political squabbles is not. I've covered enough small-town municipal meetings as a newspaper reporter to have seen my fill of squabbles. Likewise, I've seen similar squabbling amongst some civic groups I've been involved with.

And volunteer fire departments are no exception.

Yet, there are some lines that you don't cross. Endangering the public is clearly one of those lines.

Perhaps I'm missing the significance of the audit information the mayor requested and did not receive from the fire chief. But with an annual budget of around $5,600, there can't be much to audit.

Perhaps I'm missing how the fundraising group known as the Onslow Smoke Eaters has any bearing on this situation. Unless that group is engaged in some criminal activity, municipal officials should have no reason to be poking around in its business.

Perhaps what those of us who are not among the 196 Onslow residents don't know is the depth of bad blood between different individuals. It is easy to imagine how people can greatly dislike each other when their lives and histories so often intersect.

Yet I cannot imagine how any of that justifies disbanding an entire fire department.

Although the argument of relying on mutual aid was not floated in this news report, it should be viewed with harsh skepticism if it does surface. Such coverage compromises the response capabilities to both communities.

When these agreements are struck to offset an emergency such as a fire station being destroyed by fire, it is the best short-term option. When it is used to offset a personal or political tiff, it is grossly irresponsible.

Other municipalities have done away with their volunteer departments — that is nothing new. There are ways to go about it via mergers, contracts with neighboring fire departments or moving to a career model.

If Mayor Thornhill wants to rid himself of the town's fire department — to save tax money, improve service, or just because he doesn't like the firefighters — he needs to involve the community from the onset. The community must be involved in the process to determine the level and cost of fire service for their town. Options need to be developed, explored and narrowed to the best-suited.

Whether the mayor's actions were something akin to an adolescent tantrum or a publicity stunt matters not. His actions were reckless and leave vulnerable those he's charged with protecting.

I have no reason to doubt that Onslow is as friendly a place as it claims to be. Perhaps its residents need to remind its mayor of that core value. 




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