Porterdale fire chief: Problems arise due to training

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

PORTERDALE -- An investigation into claims of wrongdoing against Porterdale Fire Chief Ronald Savage has determined that most of the problems are related to inadequate record-keeping and poor training on the part of the chief.

The internal investigation was conducted by Police Chief Geoff Jacobs after a firefighter with the volunteer Porterdale Fire Department lodged 13 separate allegations against the chief, ranging from discrepancies involving fundraiser proceeds, the spending of fire department corporation funds for personal use, the inappropriate termination of a firefighter and the absence of tax documents for the corporation. The firefighter who made the complaints has since moved to another volunteer fire department in Newton County.

The Porterdale City Council has not taken any action with regard to the investigation findings.

In his 10-page report, Jacobs found a potential conflict in the fact that Porterdale has a volunteer fire department and a volunteer fire corporation formed in 1987 for the purpose of allowing volunteers to answer calls outside the city limits. The fire department's chief is appointed by the mayor and council, while the corporation chief is elected by active firefighter members of the corporation, which means there is a possibility that there could be two fire chiefs overseeing fire department operations.

Jacobs found that there is no requirement for supervisory or management training or firefighter experience in order to hold the position of fire chief for the corporation.

"Chief Savage has no verifiable supervisory or management training other than a 'fire officer's class' that he says he took back in the 1980s," Jacobs wrote in the report, "although he has been a volunteer firefighter for 42 years but never a full-time firefighter. Chief Savage also does not have any training or experience with budgeting, bookkeeping or accounting."

In the internal investigation, Jacobs examined claims that proceeds from two fundraisers in 2010 for the fire department were not properly documented and deposited in the department's bank account. Savage was unable to provide full documentation for the proceeds or the deposits. Jacobs attributed the discrepancies to inadequate record-keeping, which he said was a training issue.

Jacobs also investigated the sale of a Crown Victoria that was donated to the fire department. Jacobs found that the donor was not given a receipt for the donation and none of the vehicle information was recorded, including a copy of the title. According to Jacobs' report, the fire chief said the department kept the vehicle for a few months and then sold it for $300 because the transmission was bad.

Jacobs found that Savage was "unable to provide a bill of sale, a copy of the signed title or any other documentation that would identify the vehicle or verify the sale." This also was deemed to be inadequate record-keeping, reflecting poor training on the part of the chief.

Other problems uncovered in the investigation included:

* Inadequate record-keeping for reimbursement of firefighter expenses;

* Inadequate record-keeping for monies collected through the sales of soft drinks from a vending machine;

* Liability related to allowing a firefighter who has not passed the training examination by the deadline to serve as a volunteer and operate fire department apparatus; Jacobs recommended that the firefighter's volunteer status be suspended pending completion of training and no personnel operate the fire apparatus until properly trained and certified;

* Chief Savage is listed with the Secretary of State as secretary for the fire department corporation, which is a violation of the corporation bylaws;

* Use of the corporate debit card to purchase gasoline for Savage's personal vehicle; Savage felt he was entitled to do so as he was using his vehicle for fire department business; this was deemed to be inadequate record-keeping and a training issue;

* Inadequate record-keeping for failure to retain copies of IRS forms completed for tax-exempt status;

* Liability for allowing a walk-on volunteer applicant classified as a sex offender to attend two training sessions; applicant was ultimately dismissed.

Complaints against the fire chief that were determined to be unfounded included:

* Firefighters receiving credit for calls/training that never occurred; this record-keeping was found to be adequate;

* Sexual harassment of a female visitor; this was found to be an insult rather than sexual harassment and was determined to be unfounded;

* Use of racial slurs by the fire chief; this was denied by the chief and testimony given by complainants was determined to be vague and conflicting.

In summary, Jacobs wrote that he believes Savage "is a good person with good intentions. I also believe that he has a huge love for the volunteer fire service, has the respect of most of his volunteers and enjoys being the fire chief."

Jacobs wrote that the allegations against Savage arose from a conflict between firefighters, who wanted the department to be more professionally run, and the chief, who felt his authority was being threatened. Jacobs found that any use of corporate funds by the chief was done without malice and under the belief that he was entitled to use the funds.

Jacobs recommended that the fire chief position should be filled by application and appointment by the city manager, with mayor and council approval in the future.

"For now, I believe the city of Porterdale and Newton County should seek the appropriate training for Chief Savage, if he is to remain," Jacobs wrote.