Fire department's troubles lead Ky. county executive to declare state of emergency
The order comes after the state fire commission said it would no longer recognize the Stinking Creek Fire Department as a fire department
The Times-Tribune, Corbin, Ky.
KNOX COUNTY, Ky. — A Knox County fire department, currently being investigated by multiple agencies that includes the Kentucky State Fire Commission, found itself as the subject of a local state of emergency signed by Knox County Judge-Executive Mike Mitchell on Tuesday.
The declaration comes after Mitchell's office received official notification stating the Kentucky State Fire Commission no longer recognized the Stinking Creek Fire Department as being a fire department.
And while the county's fiscal court has no power on regulating the day-to-day operations of local volunteer fire departments — they're regulated by the fire commission and Kentucky state law — Mitchell said the executive order was a result of the court's obligation in ensuring the public safety of Knox County residents.
"Whenever they failed to recognize them as a fire department, then that really threw the burden on us to make arrangements on making sure that those residents of the Stinking Creek area are protected," Judge Mitchell told the Times-Tribune.
Mitchell said issues surrounding the fire department began three or four months ago after Charles Freeland became its chief.
"He really wasn't able to do that under the KRS (Kentucky Revised Statues), but he sidestepped and went around that by entering into a contract as being a paid chief instead of a volunteer fire department chief," noted Mitchell. "This has all come down to mismanagement and lack of experience in knowing how to run a fire department."
"Within a few short months here, he took over an operating fire department that was functional and he's turned it into a dysfunctional, non-operating department," Mitchell later added.
As a result of no longer being recognized by the fire commission and the executive order, Mitchell said the Stinking Creek Fire Department's members no longer received workers' compensation coverage.
"They have no boundary or area to protect when this order came down," he explained. "They're no longer eligible to receive any funding. Their trucks are not allowed to use the official tags on public highways. They can't use lights or sirens."
The department's firefighters are no longer CDL (Commercial Driver's License) exempt, which prevents them from driving the department's firetrucks without having first obtained a CDL.
"It basically left them rendered as nonfunctional," Mitchell said.
Bruce Roberts, Division Director with the Kentucky Fire Commission, did confirm that technically those who volunteered with Stinking Creek Fire Department could take it upon themselves to respond to emergencies in the area.
However, even if they were to navigate around all of the aforementioned stipulations, responding may prove difficult as Mitchell said he has instructed the Knox County 911 dispatch to direct all callouts within the Stinking Creek community to the East Knox Fire Department.
Mitchell's declaration states that the East Knox Fire Department shall direct all operations within the existing Stinking Creek Fire Department coverage area. Before signing the executive order, Mitchell said he reached out to the East Knox Fire Department, which is located 6.5 miles from the Stinking Creek Fire Department, and asked if they would be willing to cover the Stinking Creek coverage area.
"This is a big responsibility for them to take on," Mitchell said on East Knox. "They didn't really have to. I asked them if they would be willing to do this and they are. It's going to be very demanding on them."
Judge Mitchell explained that each volunteer fire department in Knox County receives mutual aid from other county fire departments, should they request it. He said he's been in contact with firefighters from other departments all across Knox County who have confirmed they would offer assistance to the East Knox Fire Department when responding to an emergency in the Stinking Creek area.
"People in Knox County will help each other," Mitchell said. "We've got so many good firefighters within this county, I'd put them up against anybody in our region. I think they're the best," he continued. "They've come to the aid of other districts in the past and they will continue to do so. I admire them for that."
Mitchell is hopeful that it won't take long for the multi-agency investigation to to run its course. He's also optimistic that once it is, the county will be able to reestablish the Stinking Creek Fire Department under new leadership, but said the county was set up to "go the distance" on managing the situation until that occurred.
"This fire department has been scrutinized and compromised to the point to where it's non-existing anymore," Mitchell said. "What will have to happen to make this fire department whole again is, is number one you've got to have fire personnel."
Mitchell and his team are already working on that. He's been in contact with several former members of the fire department and is compiling a list for the day the county is able to reestablish the fire department. He noted that Freeland had removed most of them from the fire department after taking over.
"You've also got to have the support within the community to get involved and make sure their fire department is operating and doing the right things," Mitchell later added on reestablishing the fire department.
"I think that's possible. It can be done, because I know that there are a lot of people willing to step up and help," he said. "That's just the way eastern Kentucky people are."
The Times-Tribune has reached out to the Kentucky State Fire Commission regarding the specifics of their investigation into the Stinking Creek Fire Department. We have received word that our inquiry has been forwarded to the commission's legal representatives. We will provide updates as they are provided to us.
(c)2021 The Times-Tribune (Corbin, Ky.)