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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. 

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Paul Peirce Paul Peirce Friday, September 20, 2013 5:08:12 PM They may be the only "Town of Onslow" in the United States, but they are NOT the ONLY Onslow in the United States. I speak of Onslow County in North Carolina, where Camp Lejeune is located. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune is a 246-square-mile military installation.
Jason Burke Jason Burke Friday, September 20, 2013 5:15:48 PM In colchester county in Nova Scotia Canada is also a Onslow. I do understand it saidin the US, seeing Onslow Fire caught my eye as i live 5 minuets away from this nslow lol.
Carl Burney Carl Burney Friday, September 20, 2013 6:53:32 PM Mayor is completely wrong here as The Smoke Eaters is not a city entity. Their business is none of his. He
Paul R Tate Jr Paul R Tate Jr Sunday, September 22, 2013 2:09:17 PM The mayor is an idiot...hopefully he will get sued and be ruined for life. He is very ignorant and short-sighted.
Bob Farrell Bob Farrell Sunday, September 22, 2013 2:29:11 PM RO YOU 196-EMPEACH THE JERK
Greg Jeppson Greg Jeppson Sunday, September 22, 2013 2:52:37 PM Thanks I was gonna write the same .. Half Moon VFD
Eugene Atkins Eugene Atkins Sunday, September 22, 2013 3:02:28 PM There is another town this one in Oklahoma who is going through the same problem. The towns trustees and attorney are demanding that all money raised by the auxiliary be turned over to the town because the town is broke. As of yet the FD has not been fired but stay tuned for further updates the next town meeting is on the 30th of this month.
Doc Badger Doc Badger Sunday, September 22, 2013 3:02:42 PM the mayor sounds like a dictator. his way or the hi-way no matter what the agency is or how many lives are put in danger.
William Weedman William Weedman Sunday, September 22, 2013 3:38:40 PM I wonder what this mental giant of a mayor does when the surrounding communities refuse to honor the mutual aid agreements because the wording would be emergency situation and disbanding your fire dept. is not defined as an emergency but a deliberate act....can he operate the pump and man the nozzle at the same time?
Dave Adams Dave Adams Sunday, September 22, 2013 4:00:15 PM I hope the mayor's house doesn't burn down.
Brian Blackburn Brian Blackburn Sunday, September 22, 2013 4:08:39 PM Interesting reading, sounds like we aren't alone in the world out there with similar issues from city hall.
Charlie Corey Charlie Corey Sunday, September 22, 2013 5:39:16 PM I would hope the neighboring communities tell the Mayor that they are more then happy to provide mutual aid "AFTER" his department gets on scene to evaluate the situation
Debbie Raymond Debbie Raymond Sunday, September 22, 2013 6:43:25 PM I agree with you Charlie...No politician should put a town at risk without getting its ducks in a row.
Bob Johnston Bob Johnston Sunday, September 22, 2013 10:12:00 PM this is insane! this "mayor" seems to have serious personal issues. this guy is even worse than Bloomberg in New York and his attempt at outlawing soft drinks over 16 ounces!!
Glennon Mayer Glennon Mayer Monday, September 23, 2013 6:31:59 AM Just because he is the mayor doesn't make him smart. let his house burn and all hell will brake lose. Onslow residents should move to a bigger more unfriendly town.
Dan McNichol Dan McNichol Monday, September 23, 2013 7:57:56 AM Cap Another bean counter sitting on his brains. Some people just don't get it and never will.
Curtis Thornhill Curtis Thornhill Monday, September 23, 2013 9:11:55 AM It was because of the request of the citizens of our city that this action was taken. Personal? No not at all. The mayor does not have a personal agenda. The citizens of Onslow have become so disgusted with the organization that they have questioned this office continually regarding why they have to put up with the non-compliance of the organization. They don't, and should not have to. Those who have negative responses should at the least. come forward and speak to the city residents
Brandon Greeno Brandon Greeno Monday, September 23, 2013 11:43:36 AM i wondder how he will act when it is his house on frie and no one comes to put it out
Brandon Greeno Brandon Greeno Monday, September 23, 2013 11:47:23 AM sorry to disagree with you but i hope it does being a volenteer firefighter he needs to learn when he plays with fire he will get burned it will be better if it is his house and not someone elces
David Peterson David Peterson Wednesday, September 25, 2013 6:14:11 AM I don't want anyone to think I'm siding with the mayor here; i'm not, but has anyone thought to contact these folks and get the whole story? I was the victim of one of your regular contributor's opining on my actions without getting all of the facts. He printed his condemnation of actions taken by me without doing any fact checking on the article reported in the media. Of course we all know that everything that's reported is factual and accurate. I think it is irresponsible of your contributors to not take the extra time to call the mayor and the chief and get their side of the story. That would be harder to do but would avoid slandering someone needlessly.
Rick Bebensee Rick Bebensee Sunday, September 29, 2013 9:52:32 AM come on people this is not the 6th grade this is the public safety your messing with.

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