The Sept. 29, 2017 arrests of Brooksville Fire Chief David Freda and Fire Captain David Murdoch and subsequent administrative leave has placed another burden on an already fragile Brooksville Fire Department. Murdoch and Freda were arrested on fraud charges while each separately held the Fire Chief position of the voluntary department in Henrando Beach.
The City's department of 18 possible positions had 3 vacancies prior to the arrests. On Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, a new fire position was put into effect bringing the total to 6 vacancies out of 19 positions. Discussion of council members on Oct. 2, ranged from concern over safety, the possibility of creating a public safety director position or utilizing county resources to fill in the gaps.
After the events of Sept. 29, Interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner met with remaining fire department staff. He reported that there was unanimous support to appoint Stanley N. Mettinger, Jr. to Interim Fire Chief. Mettinger has been with the City of Brookville fire department for 15 years.
Council member Bernardini felt that it may be a good time to get the county involved with the department, but the details would need to be worked out. He referred to a potential referendum in which the city voters would decide whether the city keeps a fire department or consolidates that service with the county.
Bernardini brought up the fact that it would be difficult to tell any prospective employee where they would be a year from now, since the fire department is in such a state of flux. It may also limit the city’s choices in hiring.
Council member Kemerer asked Interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner,
“Because of what’s going on right now, we obviously ran shifts with our firefighters… On an interim basis do we go back to 5 (positions)?” The sixth position was created in order to provide the ability for the fire department to respond with two trucks instead of one.
Lyndon Bonner: “That’s really the only strategy I’ve got for you right now… We’re going to be running some overtime either way...”
Agreeing with Bernardini, Kemerer said, “It’s difficult to offer anybody a position under the current circumstances.”
Bonner stated, “We’re going to advertise across the spectrum… and see what we actually get to try to fill in the spots that were funded on the 28th (3 positions) from last year…”
Mayor Battista remarked, “A lot of firefighters currently work with more than one fire department… we may get experienced people who want to fill in with us… not necessarily hiring someone out of fire school.”
Council Member Natalie Kahler mentioned that Chief Freda, was readying to present to them a plan for a volunteer firefighter program.
“But we can’t tackle something like that right now, we’re trying to recover from a hurricane, we’ve got a new manager coming in, we’ve got a lot going on. It’s not the time to start a volunteer program as much as I advocated for it and really really want it… for a supplementary program,” she said.
Kahler was cautious of filling in the gaps with county personnel. “I’m not interested in paying county people a county wage, when I’m not paying my own people that kind of wage. Their driver engineers make more than our captains. If you are talking about escalating tensions in a firehouse, that’s how you’re going to do it. I totally am not good with that,” she stated.
She also expressed concern over possibly overburdening the interim fire chief, since Mettinger works 24 hour shifts.
“I also am concerned… that we are short staffed and we have just made somebody interim chief who works shifts, so he can’t be there during the day. This is a man who works a shift and is in charge of a shift - he can’t be doing that and acting as interim chief- which is why I think it is more to our benefit to go back to the Public Safety Director idea. Get each of our district (fire) chiefs where they are managing their own shift but we have the oversight coming from the police department which is very well staffed, has a lot of administrators…”
Kahler also pointed out that Chief Freda was the Emergency Management Director for the city as well as Fire Chief.
“We’re potentially asking for too much of that department with too little staffing,” she said.
Mr. Bonner remarked, “I can’t appoint another employee. I can’t define another position. I made a battlefield decision on what needed to be done that night.”
“...And I’ll stand behind his decision 100%. I’m not going to stand here and micromanage or second guess my City Manager. I’d don’t think that is appropriate at this point. These people need leadership and he’s providing it right now.” He said that he wouldn’t mind discussing a Public Safety Director position moving forward.
“There comes a point in time where we got to let him run the business,” said Kemerer.
“My concern, if I may Mayor, is safety,” said Vice Mayor Erhard. “We are two positions short… and I respect the city manager’s decision, but we’re asking someone to step into an interim role that does other roles. That’s a concern.”
Mayor Battista addressed the Interim Fire Chief Mettinger,
“Stan if you think you can do the job, I’m very satisfied with the decision that was made. I’m not asking you to answer that question. That’s between you and the manager.”
Bonner stated that there will be some overtime and there isn’t a single director that is not wearing more than three hats right now. “Not a single one.” He said that the upcoming meeting can be used to make great strides on what the council wishes to do strategically.
Interim Fire Chief Mettinger stated, “I just like to say that I’ve worked here for 15 years and I’m proud to have worked here for that long. I chose to stay because it was small. I had worked in a larger department… I would not have accepted the challenge, if I had thought that I could not do it. I wanted to be the Fire Chief when I came here. I may not have wanted to be the Fire Chief under these conditions, however I wouldn’t have accepted the position if I had not thought I could do it.”
Discussion ensued on their current protocols with assistance from the county’s fire rescue department, which will also have to be examined.
Bonner stated that they must make sure they have the resources they need, without overlap. “I don’t need all calls to have ALS (advanced life support), a firetruck and another firetruck. I’m not so certain about that utilization. But if we need someone- I want to push that second button and go for mutual aid.”
Mayor Battista said that they can have a whole meeting or two or three devoted to fire. There was agreement that solutions need to be implemented quickly.
The next city council meeting is set for Oct. 16, 7PM at City Hall.