Chief resigns, board chair says department needs more firefighters
by Kara Lopp
The Mint Hill Volunteer Fire Department suddenly finds itself in the midst of serious changes.
Jeremy Russell, the department’s fire chief, who also worked as Fire/EMS operations director for the town, has resigned. And the department’s volunteer board chairman says the agency is short staffed, a claim the town manager disputes.
The issues were unveiled Thursday, May 10, during the Mint Hill commissioners meeting. Two women, including Russell’s mother, spoke during the meeting, urging town officials to pay the former chief the vacation pay they say he’s due. Commissioners held a closed session meeting to discuss the personnel matter but made no announcement. The issue is still “under investigation,” Town Manager Brian Welch said this week. Commissioners have held three closed session meetings since April 12 to discuss a personnel matter.
Russell, 37, “voluntarily” resigned from the town April 13, Welch said. He was employed by Mint Hill for 17 years and his current salary was $79,684, according to town records.
He resigned from his post as fire chief of the volunteer department Thursday, May 10, before Mullis spoke with commissioners, Mullis said.
Russell could not be reached for comment by press time.
The town has named EMS Assistant Chief David Leath as interim Fire/EMS operations director, Welch said. The volunteer board appointed Deputy Chief John Phillips to fire chief, effective Monday, May 21, Mullis said.
Is the department short staffed?
Though the town currently pays 16 full-time firefighters to help staff the department, which maintains an independent board, Board Chairman Jerry Mullis said only three paid firefighters were on-duty the night he spoke to commissioners.
“We are often very short staffed and that leaves us in very grave danger,” Mullis told commissioners. “We can’t get two trucks out, legally, with three people. At this time, the employees cannot even plan vacations because of the short staffing.”
Until Mullis spoke at the meeting, Welch said he hadn’t heard about the department being short-staffed. And there’s no reason it should be, he said. In addition to the full-time firefighters hired by the town, Mint Hill budgets about $10,000 each year to reimburse the volunteer department to hire firefighters from other agencies on a part-time, as-needed basis. Welch said he hasn’t received any reimbursement requests from the department so far this fiscal year. There is no deadline to submit the requests, he said.
“Day-to-day operations are handled at the volunteer end. I’ve been under the impression the entire time they’ve been filling in with part-time help,” Welch said.
Mullis said this week he didn’t know the town still offered reimbursement as an option to hire extra help as needed. That was his misunderstanding, he said, and the department has used part-time help in the past to fill needs. More often, though, officials call town employees to help fill the gaps, promising time back later, Mullis said.
“I thought that these shifts who have been down to three (firefighters) were not allowed to call in any part-time help,” he said. “I don’t want to scare the public. It just lets us provide a better service with more persons going out on a call.”
Mint Hill’s call volume continues to grow, Mullis said, with more than 3,000 calls for service per year. Eventually, the board would like to see eight full-time firefighters/EMTs per shift, he said. The department has three shifts. Currently, the town gets assistance on some calls from the Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department and other nearby agencies.
The town is in the process of hiring three additional full-time firefighters, at a budget increase of $150,000. The fire department budget for salaries has grown steadily since 2006, when the town paid $160,000 in salaries, Welch said. This year the department has budgeted $725,000 for firefighter salaries – nearly a 450 percent increase since 2006.
“As you can see, the town makes a substantial contribution. Rest assured no other department has come close to having that type of increase,” Welch said. “Public safety is one of our most important services we provide, and funding to support our commitment to that will continue. We’re doing everything we can do to make sure the residents of Mint Hill are safe and sound.”