Preparedness & Recovery

Reports Reveal Fire Department Failures

State law makes it a misdemeanor for a public employee — like fire department personnel — to willfully neglect their duties.

by Kyle Kaminski, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich. / May 3, 2018

(TNS) - Records show former Frankfort Fire Chief Charles Thompson responded slower than national standards or not at all to every call in 2018 prior to his recent demotion.

The veteran fire chief — last week demoted to a position as firefighter — was late to leave the station on every call he took this year, according to an analysis of recently released dispatch logs compared to standards outlined by the National Fire Protection Association.

Thompson took more than 15 minutes to hit the road after a man fell in a bathroom and felt weak and nauseated, reports noted. Other residents — some wavering in and out of consciousness — called to report difficulty breathing and an irregular heartbeat. Thompson didn’t answer their calls, according to logs obtained by the Record-Eagle through the Freedom of Information Act.

Logs note Thompson averaged more than 5 minutes to leave on each of the two-dozen calls he handled this year. National safety standards mandate a 90-second turnout time; Thompson didn’t hit the mark once, according to those dispatch records. One in every four calls he received this year didn’t receive a response, records state.

“I’ve got to believe he was at the station,” said city Superintendent Josh Mills. “He was getting paid to go on these runs. It doesn’t matter if it was full-blown cardiac arrest. He knew that he needed to be at these calls. … He started up with a couple of excuses but he knew what he did was wrong.”

Thompson was never called to a fire this year, according to the reports. Mills said the primarily medical-related emergency calls still required attention from the fire department but other local agencies — like Benzie EMS — often are the first line of defense in those instances.

“It’s not like a nursing home was on fire and nobody responded,” Mills said.

Thompson previously declined to comment about the decision and didn’t return subsequent calls. Mills said he hopes he’ll soon decide to return as a firefighter even though he cut Thompson’s $9,000 annual salary and banned him from on-call responder shifts for at least the next three months.

Mills said for more than a decade he has had a friendship with Thompson, which made it that much more difficult for him to make a decision regarding discipline. He dismissed the idea of conflicting interests but said the concept can be hard to avoid in a small, familial city like Frankfort.

“I think I would have done it the same way regardless (of our prior relationship),” Mills said.

State law makes it a misdemeanor for a public employee — like fire department personnel — to willfully neglect their duties. Benzie County Prosecutor Sara Swanson labeled Thompson’s consistent slow response to calls for duty as “concerning” but said no criminal complaints have been filed with her office.

But any potential investigation should not be handled by the Frankfort Police Department because of potential conflicts of interest, Swanson said. Frankfort Police Chief Robert Lozowski was unavailable for comment. Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel said he hasn’t received any complaints on the topic.

“I have a conflict of interest with everything I do in this town,” said city council member Bob McNabb. “That’s a bulls--- argument. If you’re in charge of something in a small town, you’re going to have a conflict of interests. … I think it needed to be addressed and it was.

“I’ve been here for a long, long time and there have been far worse screw-ups than this one.”

Mills said tracking down Thompson’s unresponsiveness wasn’t an easy task. Records indicate he didn’t document a single incident on the city’s reporting software since at least the beginning of the year — forcing officials to cross reference department run sheets with logs obtained from dispatchers.

The run sheets were also problematic; Thompson reported his involvement with only one call since the beginning of the year. And Mills said that report likely was generated by another staff member.

“Moving forward, we’re putting in some sort of mechanism,” Mills said. “We want to see these dispatch sheets and we want to match them up. … We really want to enhance the level of oversight on this. I’d like to believe there weren’t issues going back into last year but I just don’t know.”

City council members stood behind Mills’ decision but most declined to comment. Others — like Mayor Katie Condon — didn’t return several phone calls. Council member Paul Luedtke and Mayor Pro-Tem Daniel Walenta also rejected any notion of conflicts of interest in the demotion.

“I have plenty of long-time, personal relationships,” Luedtke said. “That’s Frankfort.”

Firefighter Aaron Garrett will fill Thompson’s role while Mills works to select a permanent replacement. He said Garrett is a prime candidate given his decades of medical and firefighting experience downstate but Thompson is free to reapply for the job at the end of his suspension.

“He’s close to having his 40 years in,” Mills said. “I hope he stays on. I hope he stays on and retires and I think our department would honor him in that way. These situations that were discovered do not define his career. He’s done a lot of great work in his lifetime.”

Visit Record-Eagle.com for continued coverage and further analysis of Frankfort Fire Department dispatch reports.

———

©2018 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

Visit The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.) at record-eagle.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.