New Chief Selected by Embattled Rural Fire District

photo by: MCCLATCHY

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

A new chief has been selected to lead the embattled Four Mile Fire Protection District, which serves about 2,500 residents.

During a board of directors meeting last week, the district leaders picked John “Jack” Lowe, following an executive session, according to board representatives and resident accounts. He will start the position on July 10.

Lowe, who served as the former lieutenant and fire marshal for Georgetown County, South Carolina and a former police officer in West Virginia, will have his work cut out for himself.

He must grapple with a standoff between residents/volunteer firefighters and the district’s board of directors, capped by a walkout of the entire volunteer force in late April. That occurred, following the firing of former chief Tom Hatton. As a result, the area has operated with a non-functioning local fire protection district for close to two months.

Besides a tough political situation, the new chief must address concerns over rebuilding the volunteer force, deal with growing risks associated with the peak of the fire season and combat the threat of exploding insurance rates.

According to a report in The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, the board is optimistic about the new chief, citing his strong qualifications for the job and overall experience. He was the top candidate among a list of approximately 15 candidates.

Plenty of finger pointing, though, has ensued in the last two months, with volunteer firefighters accusing the board of not operating with any transparency and ignoring the community’s needs. District board  supporters, though, have raised key management issues pertaining  to the operations of the fire department, and the use of volunteers and purchase of equipment. Board members, however, have refused to comment on the firing of Hatton.  

 A board meeting is scheduled for this Wednesday, June  21 at 7 p.m. at the District Fire Station building on Teller 11. The board may release results of a recent audit.  

Fights between property owners and board members aren’t unusual for the district. But this is the first-time in recent memory, the district couldn’t function. Nearby agencies, such as Cripple Creek and Florissant fire departments and Teller County Sheriff’s Office, though, have offered to assist the Four Mile area. “Nothing has really changed,” cautioned several Teller County Sheriff Department representatives during an earlier meeting, following the exit of the firefighters.  

Long-time resident Jon Davison, who organized a community meeting in early May, stressed that his main gripe deals with the board’s decision to terminate the chief without a contingency plan. “It is very unfortunate what happened,” said Davison. The board should not have taken the direction it did without a mitigation plan…We need to pull together as a community.”

Davison is also concerned about the recent pick as chief, questioning why the board picked someone from outside the area, who has no experience with Colorado wildfires.    

Another side issue deals with the prospects of residents losing their insurance or having to pay soaring rates. This emerged as a kay point during the community meeting in early May. Many residents contended that the lack of an operating fire department would result in huge increases in insurance rates. They urged district leaders to act swiftly in resolving the impasse.

In addition, supporters of the former chief have threatened to recall the current board of directors. That action was suggested at the earlier community meeting, and has gathered momentum in recent weeks.

Or, former firefighter volunteers say they just take a wait and see attitude.

The next regular election of the board is scheduled for May 2018.