Rescue squad under fire
Sevier County Commission’s decision last month to cut some funding to the volunteer rescue squad showed a divide among officials over the effectiveness of the squad and its leadership.
Last year, the Sevier County Fire Chief’s Association issued a vote of no confidence against the rescue squad, saying its members show “incompetence” and a decline in basic skills. The funding cut came months after the squad purchased property for another substation in Seymour, only to have its board of directors order the squad to sell the home after neighbors complained to the County Commission.
County Commissioner Fred Atchley, who is also a captain with the Sevierville Fire Department and an auxilary member of the Sevier County Volunteer Fire Department, said his issues with the rescue squad concern its leadership and ability to perform its duties.
“There’s times that they get to a scene and they can’t perform anything,” Atchley said. “They’ve got the best equipment of anybody and they can’t perform anything.”
For its part the rescue squad, whose building is on Dolly Parton Parkway, says it does a good job, its members are well trained and it believes the chiefs association doesn’t like the fact that rescue squad members are trained through a different agency from the fire departments.
At a recent commission meeting, assistant chief Todd Spence asked for the rescue squad funds to be reinstated. Despite that, all the commissioners present voted in favor of a budget that cut the funding — including Commissioner Tony Proffitt, who is chairman of the board for the squad, and Ronnie Allen, who also serves on the rescue squad board.
Officially, the reasoning for cutting the funds was that the squad was claiming a substation that it wasn’t using. The county funds volunteer emergency responders based in part of the number of substations they use.
Proffitt acknowledged in an interview that he should have made a motion to restore the funding.
“I dropped the ball,” he said.
The Sevier County Fire Chief’s Association, in voting no confidence in the squad, outlined their concerns in a letter dated March 27, 2012. Several of the chiefs, speaking to The Mountain Press, said they decided not to make the letter public because they hoped the squad would address the issues after learning of the no-confidence vote.
“This decision,” the letter says, “does not stem from one incident, but instead a noticeable steady decline in the SCVRS ability and technical skills to perform at even the basic levels of vehicle extrication or any other type of technical rescue. This incompetence is an explicit safety concern, as well as a possible legal burden, for the fire departments they respond with.”
The letter says “effective and measurable change must occur” before “this continued decline in competence” ends. In the letter the chiefs feared serious injury or even death to a responder or citizen.
The letter asked that the squad take several measures over six months, including training with other agencies, seeing that no one under 18 be sent to wreck scenes, that the departments have the right to reduce the squad to nonemergency response or cancel it to any scene, and that the squad let the training division of the chief’s association evaluate the membership. Otherwise, the letter said, the chiefs might recommend the rescue squad be disbanded and its equipment given to other departments.
Kevin Nunn, current chief’s association president, said the feeling of the association has not changed.
He said the volunteer fire departments still work with the rescue squad, and he hopes they will continue working together and the squad will continue responding to calls because the volunteer agencies sometimes need equipment the squad carries. The squad does not respond to wreck calls in Sevierville, Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge.
“It’s not like we can take their equipment away,” Nunn said. “It’s not like we can dissolve their organization. I think it was a statement to shape up.”
On the other hand, Nunn said he believes the chief’s association would have supported the County Commission’s decision to cut funds to the rescue squad.
Atchley said he wants to see changes at the top.
“Its time for them to have new leadership,” he said. “Its time for Jim Kyker to go.”
He sees a conflict in Kyker being treasurer as well as chief for the squad. Atchley questioned whether that made it easier for Kyker to purchase the house in Seymour, which belonged to a distant relative of Kyker’s whom Kyker said he didn’t know personally.
‘Extrication is extrication’
Kyker at first denied any knowledge of the chiefs’ letter. He later admitted he had been present at the March 2012 chiefs meeting when the rescue squad concerns were being expressed, but said he left when the chiefs began to criticize the squad and hasn’t been back to another meeting.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t work with them,” Kyker said.
The board of directors for the squad reviewed the contents of the letter, he said, and disregarded it.
“Our board of directors voted we knew what we were doing,” he said, later adding “We talked to our attorney and he said it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.”
Kyker said squad members get regular training. They have to renew their certifications every two years.
He believes the dispute started because the chief’s association began getting training through a different agency.
He said his squad’s primary training is sanctioned through the Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads, and is used by fire departments in other parts of the state.
“Extrication is extrication,” Kyker said. “It don’t matter where you take it. We’re qualified people. Our certification will stand up in court any day. I don’t know what their problem is.”
In an interview attended by Spence, Proffitt, Kyker and other squad officials, Spence indicated he wasn’t aware of incidents where his personnel turned over rescue squad equipment because they weren’t trained to use it properly.
“I want to see a date and specifics of what happened, and I will resolve the situation,” he said.
Squad members must pass tests he supervises before they’re allowed to get equipment, adding they aren’t supposed to hand equipment to other departments because the rescue squad uses different equipment.
‘Wasn’t keeping up’
Sevierville Fire Chief Matt Henderson, who was president of the chief’s association, acknowledged they had asked the squad to change their training. “(Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads) was the only training we had available to us and we felt like that wasn’t up to date,” he said. “It wasn’t keeping up with technology.”
The chiefs’ association developed its own training method about eight years ago, he said, and they asked the squad to use it.
Henderson said he’s seen rescue squad members show up at wrecks where they did little more than carry in equipment the volunteer fire departments didn’t have.
Pigeon Forge Fire Department Chief Tony Watson said he also believes the vote of no confidence should remain in effect.
“The city of Pigeon Forge stands by that letter that was written in 2012. We haven’t seen any change that’s been performed,” he said.
‘Thought it was resolved’
No representative of the squad has gone to a chief’s association meeting since the vote of no confidence, Spence said, but they have talked with Henderson, Nunn and other chiefs in an effort to resolve any problems.
“Nobody talked about it any more,” he said. “We thought it was resolved.”
He said they’ve never sent squad members under 18 years of age to wreck scenes. They had an Explorer — a teen or young adult who volunteers with the department —who was showing up on his own at some scenes, driving his personal vehicle, but Spence said he eventually had to ask that person to leave the program.
He also said they’ve been training with other agencies in the chief’s association. The squad performs a number of other tasks, including high-angle rescues, swift-water rescue and searches.
When it comes to their leadership, however, Spence said decisions are made each November by members of the squad who remain in good standing.
“If they want a change in leadership, that’s up to the people in this building,” he said.
Proffitt added that he and the board approve of having Kyker serve as treasurer and president.
Spence said they will meet with the chiefs again.
“We’re trying to work with everybody,” he said. “We get a (phoned emergency) tone, we’re going to go.”