04/12/09 — Goldsboro Fire Department still improving

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Goldsboro Fire Department still improving

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on April 12, 2009 2:00 AM

Since taking over the Goldsboro Fire Department about six months ago, interim Fire Chief Gary Whaley said last week that the situation is improving and that he expects that to continue.

Whaley explained that when he took over after former chief Alvin Ward left the department in October -- city officials still refuse to say whether he resigned or was fired -- there were a number of significant problems and challenges that had to met.

Now, he said, new radios have been purchased, and "specialty teams," such as trench rescue and high-angle rescue groups, have been re-united.

Other issues, though, are continually challenged in a weekly Monday meeting of command staff, Whaley said.

One major goal is seeking grant funding to patch some deficiencies that came to light at the end of Ward's tenure, he said.

Trouble in the department first came to public attention when complaints about an assistant chief promotion cropped up.

That eventually sparked an audit of the fire department, which cost taxpayers about $31,000. City Manager Joe Huffman said he already had questions about the way the fire department was operating, and needed an outside source to confirm his concerns.

The fire station audit, commissioned by the city council, criticized Ward for a variety of problems.

When the city released the results of the audit in early November, it detailed "substantial problems with how employees are managed ... a significant lack of openness and trust" and "disparate treatment" of employees.

Part of the solution to that problem has been a simple one, Whaley said -- talking to people and finding out what their concerns are.

"Any time an administration changes, there's a lot of adapting that needs to be done," Whaley said. "Basically we had to get everybody refocused back on the goals of the fire department."

And although many of the issues to be addressed are gradual changes, some were immediate, Whaley said.

First off, the reserve pumpers owned by Goldsboro were not certified by the National Fire Protection Association.

That was due to the back part of the pumpers' cabs being "open" like a flatbed truck, and firefighters had to ride there.

The solution has been to obtain another "chase vehicle," an automobile to carry firefighters who are needed for the call but don't fit on the fire truck, Whaley said.

New "station wear" has also been ordered, which Whaley called a "uniform issue." The interim chief said that even the clothes firefighters wear under their "turnout gear," must be flame retardant.

"That's in the process of being completed," Whaley said. "Shortly, all the firefighters will be wearing NFPA-approved station wear."

Although some of the improvements involved equipment, many other changes involved the general operations of the department, the interim chief said.

"I reckon one of our biggest assignments was to address our general orders," Whaley said, referring to the code Goldsboro firefighters must adhere to.

"We had general orders that didn't apply to the department. Some of them needed to be changed or brought up to date. We spent several weeks doing that," Whaley said.

The changes made to the fire department are not simply for show -- the insurance rates that Goldsboro residents pay also depend on them.

Whaley said the department recently passed an interim inspection, which allows a department's personnel to participate in the Fireman's Pension Fund and the Firemen's Death Benefit Act, according to State Fire Marshal Wayne Goodwin's office.

While the basic inspection is now behind them, the department must still go through another inspection to determine its insurance rating.

The city of Goldsboro currently has a rating of "5" on a scale where lower numbers are better and mean better fire insurance rates for communities.

"We're trying to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money," Whaley said. "I think we have to prepare ourselves better, throughout the entire department, to be better stewards of the funds that we get."