Winlaw fire chief suspended, entire department resigns
The entire Winlaw fire department (19 volunteers in all) resigned last (Tuesday) night after their fire chief of 10 years, Jon Wollenberg, was given an open three-month suspension for insubordination after a disciplinary hearing held yesterday (Aug. 13).
“I can confirm he (Wollenberg) is suspended for a period not less than three months and is required to take a fire service supervision course, which we (RDCK) will pay for, prior to his return to duty,” said regional fire chief Terry Swan.
Swan said he could also confirm that Trail dispatch (which covers the entire RDCK area) received a call last night informing them the Winlaw department would not be taking calls.
“Dispatch immediately called me,” he said. “Within minutes of the call, Passmore and Slocan Fire Departments said they would respond to calls and look after those citizens.”
Swan took a moment to offer kudos to fire chiefs Gord Ihlen in Passmore and John Gates in Slocan for stepping up to cover the Winlaw area.
“There will be no interruption in fire protection service for that area,” he said.
Back to the disciplinary action, though, Swan said he’s thinks the suspension and training requirement are fair.
“This is the third time he (Wollenberg) has wilfully disobeyed and disregarded direction from me and the RDCK,” he said.
Swan said he will be calling volunteers today to seek some sort of resolution.
Sources from inside the department have told The Castlegar Source that there’s a long-standing animosity between the volunteers and Swan, arguing that he’s consistently disrespectful of their roles as volunteers while demanding an outrageous level of respect for his own authority.
Volunteer firefighter Wolfgang Teiner said he feels Swan is “out of control,” and that, “He should look up the definition of ‘volunteer’.”
Teiner said the Winlaw firefighters are happy to defer to Swan’s greater experience and authority in emergency situations, but the demands being made of volunteers in non-emergency situations have, during Swan’s tenure, become increasingly unreasonable.
Resident Chris Sapriken described it on The Source Facebook page as follows: “You’ve been up for 48 hours+ going door-to-door providing evacuation notices to your neighbors. You’ve barely been given the chance to organize your own affairs, business, family, requiring the assistance of friends to get your loved ones out of the affected area for you. There is no “ciesta” (sic), no rest, because now you’re on call to assist anybody and everybody. Then there’s a community meeting that you can hope to get information from, as you are a member of the community involved. You would otherwise have a weekly fire hall practice to attend, but your Chief has the heart to allow you to be a citizen for the night and attend the meeting to learn something, anything about what is happening, what comes next. Then your Region Fire Chief says you can’t attend the community meeting because you have to hold a stop sign and direct traffic for everyone else attending. Your Hall Chief refuses, sighting (sic) that is not what your volunteer services are there for… directing traffic for a meeting? Highways can do that… trained traffic control services can be paid for that… heck, with a simple REQUEST, another volunteer hall can be asked to provide those services so Winlaw Hall members can be a part of their community in such a devastating time for them all. No, the Region Chief pulls rank, ordering it. Hall Chief refuses, and here we are.”
For his part, Swan said there was no explanation accompanying Wollenberg’s refusal to provide traffic control for the meeting – had that conversation taken place, he said, the situation would not be what it is today.
(In an email exchange the day of the town meeting, Wollenberg simply declined to provide the service, and Swan replied with, “Have traffic control on scene by 6:00 pm or have your resignation on my desk by noon tomorrow.“)
A source inside the department also indicated that the Winlaw fire department had decided some time ago, as a group, not to respond to non-emergency calls, and said they believed Swan to be aware of the decision.
That same source said Wollenberg decided to accept this disciplinary action without further comment, and did not rally his volunteers to resign – that was a decision they made on their own (while attending a meeting at Wollenberg’s home the night of Aug. 13).
RDCK director Walter Popoff declined to comment, deferring remarks to RDCK CAO Brian Carruthers, whom The Source was unable to reach prior to this publication.
Swan has promised an update by the end of business today regarding potential resolutions to the matter.