Meeting Held: Onalaska Left With No Volunteers Capable of Fighting Structure Fires; Interim Chief Has No EMT Training

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

Dozens of frustrated Onalaska area residents turned out Tuesday evening for a special meeting of Lewis County Fire District 1, called less than a week after many of the district’s volunteers resigned because the commission fired Chief Andrew Martin. 

While a handful of attendees defended commissioners Bill Kassel and Richard Bainbridge, who voted to dismiss Martin last Thursday, most expressed outrage that the commissioners took what many in attendance suspected to be a politically and personally motivated action that led about a dozen volunteers to resign, gutting the department of some of its most experienced EMTs and all of its members qualified to fight a structure fire and enter a burning house. 

“You don’t know how to lead and you are losing people who know how to lead,” said district resident Laura Sweany. “… People are going to suffer for your vanity.”

For much of the two and a half hour meeting, residents expressed fear that their lives and properties will now be in danger due to the loss of so many volunteers and leaders in the department, including Martin, Capt. Randy Tobler and Assistant Chief Rhonda Volk, who formally resigned Tuesday night after calling commissioners Bainbridge and Kassel “morally and ethically corrupt.”

“The community can expect this fire district to be bankrupt in less than five years,” she said. 

A number of residents asked Kassel and Bainbridge to resign and rehire Martin, which they refused to do. Martin said that he could consider returning to work for the commissioners under certain circumstances, but said the other volunteers who resigned in the aftermath have no intention of coming back unless the two commissioners are gone. 

Craig Franklin, who was defeated by incumbent Kassel in this year’s election, announced he would be seeking a recall of the commissioners and began gathering signatures. 

“All of this is retaliation,” he said. “These people, they have malfeasance up and down.”

Bainbridge and Kassel shied away from taking responsibility for firing Martin. 

“We asked Andrew to step down as chief. He came back and said he quits and they all followed him,” Kassel said. “… He’s the one who resigned.”

At that point, members of the audience asked that the audio from Thursday’s meeting be played so they could hear for themselves what happened. In the recording, commissioner Bainbridge clearly makes a motion to “dismiss” Martin, which is then seconded by Kassel. There was no further discussion, and neither commissioner addressed Martin to ask him to step down, as Kassel said. 

In the tape, district secretary Linda Patraca asked to clarify that the commissioners mean to dismiss Martin as chief, and they confirmed their intent. 

The commissioners called the special meeting to order at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, saying they needed to address the immediate need of having a fire chief. 

“We’re trying to fill the personnel gaps we have and at the same time reassure the public that service will continue as always,” Bainbridge said. “There have been some resignations as everyone knows.”

After being dismissed as fire chief Thursday, Martin quit as a volunteer. About a dozen others followed suit in protest in the days following the meeting. 

“Today, probably the most important thing we have to do is select the interim chief,” Bainbridge said, nominating district volunteer Adam Myer. 

Bainbridge and Kassel voted to approve Myer’s appointment. Commissioner Jeff Lee, who did not approve Martin’s firing, said he couldn’t approve of Myer as a chief because he had no training as an emergency medical technician. 

“He’s probably the most qualified volunteer we have,” Bainbridge countered. However, he said he didn’t have access to all of Myer’s qualifications and his file before nominating him for the interim chief position. 

Soon after the vote, residents took control of the meeting, asking their commissioners to explain the decision to fire Martin, who has been a volunteer with the district since he was 16 and is well-respected in the district and community. 

Bainbridge and Kassel denied that firing Martin was personally motivated, and said they’d been having problems with him for more than a year. 

“He was not following our direction,” Kassel said, in particular saying Martin refused to deal with “quite a number” of “harassment” complaints, but he was not specific. 

Martin, Volk and Tobler explained the situation from their perspective. They told Onalaska residents at the meeting that Tobler reported that a member of Kassel’s family used district funds to buy an expensive stethoscope that she used outside of the district. The volunteer was reprimanded and demoted.

Shortly after, Bainbridge and Kassel began collecting complaints about Tobler and asked Martin to fire him. 

They asserted Tuesday that Martin refused to do anything about the allegations against Tobler, which included him yelling at young firefighters. 

“Tobler is actually the most written up officer in this building,” Martin said. 

He said Tobler was sent to leadership training and that policy was created to address issues. Volunteer Ashley Jackson, who also resigned, confirmed that a complaint she made about Tobler was addressed to her satisfaction. 

Martin and Volk said the list of issues from Bainbridge and Kassel was made up of old complaints previously resolved, some without merit, and several from members of Kassel’s own family.

“The ones that had no merit, we dismissed,” Martin said. 

Volk admitted Tobler can be “abrasive,” but called Bainbridge and Kassel’s desire to get rid of him a “headhunt.”

“Randy was the top responder for the last three years,” she said. “He was an asset to this now failed department.”

With Volk’s departure, the district is down about a dozen volunteers. 

“I have nothing to say,” Kassel said. “It falls on deaf ears anyway.”

However Bainbridge said Onalaska residents should see no changes in their fire and EMS service, as calls could be covered by other districts through mutual aid agreements. 

Former volunteers disagreed, saying response times have already increased dramatically. Tobler noted that it took 30 minutes for an EMT to respond to a 911 call for chest pain Monday in the district.

Bainbridge admitted he didn’t know what the response times were. 

“You think I go out every day and look at response times? That’s what the chief’s for,” he said.

Bainbridge abruptly gaveled the meeting to a close just before 8 p.m.