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Firefighters threaten walkout over on-duty rules

The fire chief and other firefighters said they would not respond to anymore call-outs until the issue is resolved, leaving just two people to respond in the area


Alaska Dispatch News

WASILLA, Alaska — Tension between the Talkeetna Fire Department and Matanuska-Susitna Borough fire chiefs potentially threatens to leave this Susitna Valley climbing and tourist destination without a hometown firefighting force.

Eric Chappel, a Talkeetna fire captain and 17-year responder, got sideways last week with Mat-Su chiefs when he was preparing to use his pickup to pull upright an overturned trailer blocking the Parks Highway. Supervisors said that would violate borough emergency protocols meant to protect responders and public safety.

Chappel said he defied deputy emergency services director Ken Barkley after Barkley told him not to lend a tow strap to the trailer’s owner, who was not hurt. Before that, Chappel said, Willow-Caswell fire chief Mahlon Greene instructed him not to flip the trailer over himself because he was opening the borough up to the risk of a lawsuit by acting like a civilian instead of a responder.

Procedure dictates that responders in a similar situation generally wait for Alaska State Troopers and a tow truck to arrive.

At the scene of the Aug. 31 accident, Barkley told Chappel he couldn’t respond to any future incidents until he met with borough officials to talk about what happened. Chappel posted an angry message on a local Facebook group last Wednesday saying he would no longer serve as a responder.

He said in a phone interview Friday that at least five of the eight core Talkeetna firefighters told him they wouldn’t respond either out of solidarity.

Over the weekend, however, Chappel said in a message that “for now the fire department will respond with all the responders we did before.”

He said the borough made a verbal offer to let Talkeetna fire responders come back to the scene of an emergency as civilians once responders have cleared the scene — basically, once the emergency is over.

The borough and Talkeetna responders still need to meet, however, to hammer out the details of any agreement, both sides said Tuesday. A meeting scheduled for Wednesday was canceled. There are more proposals on the table than just the civilian-versus-responder distinction.

That part of any new policy wouldn’t have helped Chappel with the trailer: He was there before anybody else, rather than after. Instead, it would give responders a clear idea of the borough’s expectations, Barkley said in a phone interview Tuesday.

“We’re trying to work together ... to provide better service to Talkeetna,” he said. “We have some very reasonable people working with us on coming to a good conclusion for the community.”

Acting fire chief Eric Denkewalter walked off the job during the trailer incident, several people said. Denkewalter couldn’t be reached for comment. Former chief Ken Farina left in February.

When Talkeetna’s two officers walked off last week, the borough planned to call out stations at Caswell Lakes and Willow any time Talkeetna fire was dispatched. That could add up to 30 minutes of response time and put additional pressure on the other, already stretched departments. Talkeetna responds to fires in the immediate area but handles rescue responsibilities — such as wrecks — from Mile 92 to 204 on the Parks Highway.

During a phone interview last week, Mat-Su emergency services director Bill Gamble said the borough allows responders, especially in outlying areas, to respond in personal vehicles but they still have to abide by safety policies and standards for professionalism, whether they’re in Talkeetna or Sutton.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, you still have to follow those guidelines,” Gamble said. “If you don’t, there’s a huge risk to the responder and to the public. We’re just not going to deviate from that.”

The turmoil at Talkeetna highlights a clash of cultures between a more rural fire department accustomed to doing things its own way and the modernizing Mat-Su Borough, at nearly 100,000 residents and growing.

Some in the Susitna Valley see the seat of government in the crowded “core” area around Palmer and Wasilla as being out of touch — or unconcerned — with the northern borough.

Chappel blames the fire department blow-up on bureaucratic policies — “the borough is more concerned about procedures and paperwork” — that don’t fit his small town.

“They sit down there in their offices and all their brand new equipment and wreckers nearby and troopers nearby and they don’t understand what it is like to fight a fire with four guys and using the public — which we aren’t allowed to do,” he said Friday. “My first fire when I was 17. I went to Talkeetna because I saw a fire. A guy on a truck said, ‘Here’s this hose. I want you to spray it through this window until we tell you to stop.’”

Fire departments in Butte and Willow have also experienced similar staffing turmoil. The borough replaced chiefs at both in the past several years.

Issues with air tank and mask maintenance came to light at Butte during a December 2013 airplane hangar fire that sickened three firefighters after faulty equipment left them breathing toxic gases. An investigation revealed problems with the department’s adherence to borough gear testing procedures.The departures of the then-chief and assistant chief followed.

At Talkeetna, the threatened departure of the officers is revealing some borough concerns about the way the department has handled reporting and other local and state firefighting requirements.

The department was a year out of compliance with mandatory fire reports during Farina’s tenure and in jeopardy of losing its ability to respond, Gamble told a meeting of the Susitna Community Council on Thursday night, according to several people who were there. Chappel said Friday that situation has been resolved, but the department is hoping to get a paid administrative assistant to help with reports.

Barkley and Greene were to meet with the fire department about response issues that arose during an August vehicle-moose collision on the Parks Highway north of Talkeetna that injured several people. No one involved in the meeting would say what the issues were.

Gamble told the audience that responders in Talkeetna also run up against a prohibition on wearing beards. Facial hair can block the seal of the mask connected to an oxygen tank that responders wear inside burning structures to safeguard against toxic fumes and superheated air.

Yes, Chappel said, he has a beard. His department only goes into burning buildings “once every four years,” he said. So he got a verbal agreement from the borough that he can respond as long as he carries a shaving kit and shaves off enough hair to get a seal from his mask.

“Then I come home and my wife laughs at me,” he said. “I shave it all off and regrow it.”

Borough officials wouldn’t comment when asked specifically about the verbal shaving agreement or any delay it could create.

After last week’s community council meeting, a mediator tried to privately broker an agreement between Chappel and borough officials in a back room but that meeting ended after Chappel wanted to record it and the mediator refused, both say.

Normally, decisions about local fire departments are made at the local level by a small board of supervisors made up of community members. But in Talkeetna, the three-person board isn’t active.

That’s changing, Larry Dearman said.

Dearman, a senior advocate serving as mediator between the fire department and borough, wants to restart the local fire-service board and thinks Talkeetna can end up “with a pretty solid fire department” if the board can serve as a go-between.

“We don’t do well up here — I do — but most people don’t do well with The Man,” he said.

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