Paint Creek fire Chief Bradley George said Thursday he is anxious to return to work and “get back to the calmness and unity” that existed in the fire district before the turmoil that began in early July when he was suspended from his job.
George, accompanied by his wife, Monica, sat down with The Times-Gazette in Greenfield Thursday morning for his first interview since being suspended because of allegations made against him by firefighters while he was on vacation.
George defended himself against claims made about his performance and his decisions, but he also admitted he had made mistakes.
George said that when he and his wife returned from vacation in early July, Paint Creek board President Dan Mathews came to his home and informed him of the suspension and pending investigation.
“I was totally caught off guard,” said George. He said no specific reasons were given at that time, and he was only told that “they would be in touch.”
George’s decision to agree to an interview came on the heels of a Paint Creek board meeting Tuesday where firefighters distributed a “no confidence” document regarding the chief, along with a list of 70 allegations against him.
The Times-Gazette provided George with a copy of the 70 itemized issues. He said it was the first time he had seen the document, and as he perused each item he responded with comments such as, “That’s a lie,” “That’s a board decision,” “I can do that,” “We don’t need it,” “Not true,” and other similar reactions.
George said most of the items amounted to employee disagreements with management decisions. He said complaints on the list about hiring or pay rates were under the auspices of the board, not him, although he makes hiring and firing recommendations.
He denied one of the more serious allegations that he had lied to Insurance Services Office (ISO) inspectors about water availability and tanker coverage.
The ISO Public Protection Classification Program helps determine insurance costs for property owners, and shortly after George’s suspension Paint Creek announced that the ISO rating had improved for Hillsboro, Greenfield and other areas covered by the district following the latest evaluation.
“I did not lie,” said George, adding that his statements to an ISO inspector about water and tanker availability were accurate or in the process of happening. “We were meeting the gallonage,” said George.
When the rating was announced just a few days into George’s initial suspension, Hillsboro Safety and Service Director Todd Wilkin said that the city had “increased water pressure with our water loop projects,” referring to $1 million in water line improvement over the past two years. “That helps improve the ISO rating,” said Wilkin.
Firefighter Branden Jackman said at the time that the improved ISO rating “is a direct result of the hard work, training and dedication of all of the members of the Paint Creek Joint EMS & Fire District.”
George said it appeared that the list of complaints provided Tuesday included most of the claims that were originally made against him. Some refer to situations that happened four or five years ago, he said, adding that out of the 70 items, two investigations – one internal, one external – found that just three had enough merit to be taken to the board.
Jon Salyer, the Paint Creek human resources manager who conducted the internal investigation, said Thursday he agreed with the decision of Andrew Esposito of Clemans, Nelson & Associates, who conducted the external probe, to fold any complaints that were determined to have merit into the three that were formally presented to the board.
The board found merit to charges of malfeasance, gross negligence, and failure to show good behavior. The most financially significant issue involved unpaid overtime in the range of about $77,000. At a hearing earlier this month, George acknowledged there was confusion as to how to pay overtime in many cases.
A motion to terminate the chief from his job was defeated by a 5-4 vote. Instead, the board agreed unanimously to place him on 30 days unpaid leave.
George said Thursday that almost all the complaints leveled Tuesday were discussed and evaluated earlier by the board, even though firefighters may not know it.
“They weren’t in executive session, so they don’t know these were addressed and answered,’ said George.
“A lot of this stuff is cost control,” said the chief. “Were there maintenance issues? Yes. Our equipment is a little older.” Referring again to the list of complaints, George saw one that states, “Chief George would not place any rescue tools at station 22.”
“That’s correct,” said George. “It’s a two-man station. We don’t need rescue tools.”
Referring to another complaint that he had “placed a part time employee in to the Deputy Chiefs position over full time staff,” George said that was true.
“It was Jim Lyle, who has 40 years’ experience,” said George.
He said some of the firefighters do not understand the difference between a district department and a city department.
“We’re under township rule, we’re not a city,” said George. “Every piece of equipment doesn’t have everything,” he said, adding that under a district setup the necessary equipment and tools are positioned in proximity to where they can best respond to any location quickly.
George has been chief of the Paint Creek district since its formation five years ago. He had served 18 years with the Greenfield Fire Department before leaving in October of 2007 to work for the state fire marshal’s office. When voters approved the formation of the fire district in 2009, he returned home to serve as Paint Creek’s chief beginning in January 2010.
Despite the discontent evidenced by many on his staff, George intends to return to work Oct. 9 and seek a fresh start.
“I want to get back to the calmness and unity prior to when I left,” he said. “The board made a decision that I’m coming back.” He said he appreciates the board’s support, and he knows he has work to do with his staff, but “they have to work, too.” He said he will start by meeting with assistant Chief Chad Hamilton.
“I’ve reevaluated things,” said George. “I know where I made mistakes.” He said he has heard accusations that he was “shutting people down” when they came to him with complaints, and acknowledged that may have been true in some cases.
“I need to open that back up,” he said.
Monica George said her husband is not the man some of his critics have painted him to be. “He’s put on a fire uniform since he was 16,” she said. “It’s the life we live.”
“I’m absolutely looking forward to coming back,” said the chief. “I’m not a vengeful person. I’ve always done what’s best for the community first, and the district. I love doing this. I’ve done it for 27 years.”
He said, “Even through all this, I’ve still got the best group, the best men and women to serve with. But I can’t start fixing this until I come back to work.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.