Tenn. volunteer fire chief, firefighters resign over dispute with mayor
New Hope FFs followed their chief and resigned over what they call a hostile work environment and an order to return from a mutual-aid call
By Ben Benton
Chattanooga Times Free Press
NEW HOPE, Tenn. — Arriving in a small convoy of pickup trucks, six of the New Hope Volunteer Fire Department's eight volunteer firefighters unlocked the door to their fire hall Monday in South Marion County, Tennessee, deposited their gear on a table, got back in their trucks and left.
The same convoy headed across the Tennessee River to neighboring South Pittsburg's public boat ramp to speak about their reasons for quitting.
The reason for nearly every firefighter quitting the department, former New Hope Fire Capt. Robert Kortz said, was because they were working in a hostile workplace with old gear.
New Hope Mayor Mark Myers, when asked, provided no proof the volunteer firefighters were covered by workers' compensation or that their equipment was insured, Kortz said. At least one of the fire trucks was not registered to New Hope but was still registered to the previous town it served, Kortz said.
Myers could not be reached for a comment Monday. He wasn't present went the firefighters turned in their gear, and he didn't respond to a message relayed to him seeking an interview.
Members of the department have been discussing whether to quit for about a month, Kortz said, ever since New Hope's firefighters and a fire truck were called to provide mutual aid to responding emergency crews at a fire on Interstate 24, Kortz said.
"We're here to help people. Less than a month ago, we got paged out to a fire on the interstate," Kortz said. "We got to the interstate, the truck got there first before we got there with my car — I had three guys in my car. We were all called back."
New Hope's crew left the scene outraged, Kortz said.
Former New Hope Fire Chief Jimmy Haley apologized to the community and appeared upset about the situation.
"As outgoing chief who was the chief, I want to apologize to the residents of the city of New Hope because we tried. We tried," Haley said. "I want to apologize to them for not being able to carry on what we started because we had a great team, and now it's no more."
The New Hope crew was once known as the county's "hammer team" — having been so dubbed by the county's Emergency Management Agency director for group's response times, Haley said. None of New Hope's other firefighters are from New Hope; they're volunteers from nearby communities, the former chief said.
Haley and former Assistant Chief Brandon Gilliam were among the firefighters who turned in their gear and resigned Monday.
"I love New Hope. I love the people of New Hope. They're great people, but they don't deserve what they're getting," Haley said. "A change in leadership would be sweet, and if they want us to come back, I would go back in a heartbeat with a change in leadership. I cannot work in a hostile environment, and I will not work in a hostile environment."
Gilliam said Monday he was demoted for going to the fire on the interstate, and Myers' actions were causing other firefighters to leave. Gilliam said he believes an audit should be performed on the department.
Marion County Emergency Management Agency Director Steve Lamb said he was unaware of the firefighters' plans to quit, but he wasn't too surprised.
"There have been some differences between the chief and the mayor," Lamb said Monday in a phone interview. "As the county EMA director, it's not my place to get into local debates."
Myers is the elected official with the authority to find a backup plan until a long-term solution is found, Lamb said. The EMA director said he wasn't aware of any operational problems at the town's fire department.
"I think the people who have been running the Fire Department over there have been doing a good job," Lamb said, "but I'm also not aware of their day-to-day activities."
Marion County Mayor David Jackson also said he wasn't aware of the firefighters' plan and didn't feel it was his place to comment on the city's affairs.
"It would be a concern for the people in New Hope for all your firemen to quit," Jackson said, but he didn't elaborate.
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