‘Lunacy’: A once-convicted arsonist as fire chief – and a firefighter walkout
It’s the community that suffers when board members and first responders alike don’t prioritize the public trust
The new item begins, “A man once convicted of arson is now acting fire chief of the Prairie Du Pont Volunteer Fire Department in East Carondelet, Illinois. … Ten of the fire department’s 13 firefighters quit on the spot, with one taking off his fire department shirt and throwing it at the board members and later putting his gear on the table in front of them in protest.”
The story involves the replacement of Fire Chief John Rosenkranz with Assistant Chief Jerame Simmons – a move that occurred during a fire district board meeting on Monday.
If this drama isn’t enough, the story goes on to explain that Simmons had previously been pardoned by the governor for arson. Further, Simmons is the son of Herb Simmons, the long-time director of the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency.
Where do I start?
First, some commentary. This is an embarrassing demonstration of lunacy in my opinion. We in the fire service have a solemn responsibility to uphold the public trust in everything we do. Someone who has pleaded guilty and been convicted of setting fires (once to a vacant home, the other a high school) should NOT be allowed to serve in the fire department. There is no indication here that the pardon from the governor means Simmons was wrongly convicted and is being exonerated; it means the governor determined there was sufficient reason to pardon the individual with timed served. And who am I to surmise that his father being a long-time county emergency manager has anything to do with it, lest I digress down one of the many rabbit holes to this story.
We used to have this thing called “zero tolerance” for violations of public trust. Over the years, I have witnessed the erosion of this trust. For me, this isn’t about Simmons being appointed chief – that’s a decision of the board members. This is about the violation of public trust. An individual who was once convicted of arsonist should never have been allowed in (or back in) the fire service.
To those who say, “He served his time and should be allowed to live his life,” I don’t disagree. His life, however, should not be allowed to include anything representative of the fire service, where the public expectation is that we uphold the highest standards of decency, law and trust. We’re not talking about a lapse in judgment or a juvenile mistake – we’re talking about the holy grail crime against the fire service mission – the intentional setting of a structural fire, not once, but twice.
We’ve seen this rodeo before – most of the department walks out because of some poor decision of an elected body. Oh, the drama. There’s some piece of me that feels for the folks not wanting to work or volunteer for an arsonist. Therein lies the rub. They work/volunteer for their community, meaning they effectively walked out on their community – equally embarrassing as the board appointing an arsonist as acting chief. Maybe this was their expression of “zero tolerance.” Maybe there’s more to the story (there is). Regardless, the community loses.
Surrounding fire chiefs have reportedly signaled their support for the incoming chief and indicated they would be able to cover gaps in response following the resignations. At a 14-square-mile response area with three stations and a population of 2,500 (according to their Facebook page), I suspect the call volume is minimal.
It’s not over
It is clear after just a little bit of research that there’s more going on here than meets the eye; however, it’s the board’s appointment of a convicted and pardoned arsonist and the demonstrations of abandonment by the firefighters makes the news. The volunteer corporation membership has subsequently issued a public letter announcing “no confidence” in the trustees and calling for their removal, airing a laundry list of accusations against the trustees.
This isn’t over – of that I’m quite sure. I am also quite sure that the expectations of public trust don’t include arsonists – or member walkouts.
Read the original news story
Video: Ill. FFs quit after once-convicted arsonist named fire chief
Jerame Simmons, who has since been pardoned for the crime, was appointed acting fire chief of the Prairie Du Pont Volunteer Fire Department