Cullasaja Fire Department restructures membership requirements and forces more than a dozen firefighters out

After months of internal strife, Cullasaja Fire & Rescue hosted a meeting of the firefighters’ association on Thursday evening, which resulted in policy changes that prevented firefighters who do not live in the Cullasaja fire department from getting together. volunteer for the service.

Over the years, the volunteer fire departments have struggled to meet the requirements of the list due to a decline in the number of people signing up as volunteers. To solve this problem, it has become common practice for people who do not live in a specific fire district to volunteer with neighboring services, which was the case at Cullasaja Fire & Rescue until Thursday evening.

Because there are two sides to this situation and we are still working to collect as much information as possible, here is a timeline of what we can currently confirm.

At around 5 p.m. Thursday afternoon, I (Brittney Lofthouse) was contacted and informed that two groups within the Cullasaja Fire Department were in disagreement on how to move forward with department management and that the matter was going to be discussed at the meeting of the association of fire services at 7 p.m. Thursday afternoon. I plan to attend.

Thursday’s meeting was advertised in the Franklin Press as a public meeting, as allegedly required by the department’s statutes. Please note that I am declaring “allegedly” because, despite several attempts, I have not received a copy of the articles of association. I was advised by Acting Fire Chief Bobby Henry that my request for a copy of the bylaws had been made to council and it would be up to them to authorize a copy or not. I have since learned, on the advice of outgoing President Jack Baird, that I should apply for the bylaws by legal means. At 7 p.m. on Friday July 2, I did not receive a copy to verify anything. I also learned that many long-time volunteers within the department applied for the statutes and were not allowed access.

The meeting at the Cullasaja Fire Department began at 7:30 pm Board Chairman Jack Baird opened the meeting. Baird noted when opening the meeting that Thursday night was the first time in his 5 or 6 years as president that a meeting of a firefighters association had enough community members in attendance for a quorum, which means that there were enough people present to vote on companies or changes in the department. Again – due to not having access to the statutes at the time of this article’s publication, I have not been able to verify these procedures.

As soon as Baird opened the public meeting, a man in the audience offered to close the meeting to any members of the public who were not residing in the Cullasaja Fire Department. Baird then explained to the crowd that according to the association’s bylaws, the business under discussion that would be voted on could take place in a closed-door meeting where only landowners from the Cullasaja Fire District could be present and authorized to vote.

Ahead of Thursday night’s meeting, the majority of the Cullasaja Fire Department’s roster of firefighters was made up of volunteers who resided outside of the Fire District – including the first three members of the fire department. Members of the Cullasaja community present at the meeting – although not members of the fire department, held a vote to close the meeting and the majority of those present voted to do so, resulting in my departure, as well as the majority of active volunteer members. the meeting. No verification was done before the vote, although Baird said the bylaws did not require landowners to be able to vote. Henry said the residence check did not need to be done Thursday night before the vote because he had checked everyone’s residence before the meeting.

I first left the meeting at that time to gather more information about the situation because at that time I knew very little about what was going on.

Senior members of a volunteer fire service are elected and voted on by the service’s volunteer firefighters. In a recent internal election, firefighters voted to elect Tubby Zachary as the next chief of Cullasaja Fire & Rescue. Although Zachary does not own a property in the Cullasaja Fire District, he and his wife reside across from the fire department for more than half of the year, especially during the months when the volume of calls. is higher, in order to provide better response time to calls.

In recent weeks, in anticipation of Zachary’s appointment as chief of the fire service board members – and members of the association who have not volunteered for a while, have asked some community members attend the Thursday night meeting to oppose people who live outside the fire department from volunteering within the service.

About half an hour after the closed meeting began, the people who were forced to leave at the start of the meeting decided that, based on the conversation about them in the closed meeting and the attempt to bypass the newly elected department heads, entered the closed-door meeting. and placed their firefighting equipment on the ground. At that point, Baird asked law enforcement, who were already there. The volunteer firefighters were again informed that the meeting was closed and that they were not allowed to speak. At that point, the members left their belongings and left the meeting.

After consulting with my own legal counsel regarding the nearby media meeting, I chose to stay. I was not asked to leave the meeting although Acting Fire Chief Bobby Henry informed Baird that the “media” were now present.

While I was present, Henry spoke to community members to inform them that the Cullasaja Fire Department exists to serve the community, so the operations of the Fire Department are ultimately their responsibility. Henry also noted that people from the fire department who had just turned in their equipment would allegedly report to the fire department as if they were answering calls – meaning they would be credited with the $ 15 provided to volunteers for responding. on a call – however, these members never actually answered the calls. Henry did not provide any proof of the claim and did not provide the members he was referring to the opportunity to deal with the claim.

Other concerns regarding members who lived outside the district were probably discussed at the start of the meeting, however, as I was not present, I was not made aware of these issues.

Henry then informed the meeting that the county fire council responsible for overseeing the volunteer firefighters was ready to conduct an inspection on Tuesday to determine if the Cullasaja Fire Department can continue to operate with the number of council members at this time. moment. Tuesday’s inspection was already scheduled before Thursday night’s meeting. County chiefs had previously been told it was likely that after Thursday night’s meeting there would be fewer active firefighters on the list. It was planned and organized in advance of the meeting.

During the meeting, Baird informed those in attendance that by Tuesday, if the fire department did not have at least 14 active members on the roster, the department would be placed on probation by the county. According to Macon County Emergency Management Director Warren Cabe, the probation is believed to be due to following membership levels that are lower than those contractually required by the county. The probationary period would be eight months and the ministry would be closely watched during this period. In the event that the department was unable to meet the 14 active member requirement – which requires members to complete 36 hours of training per year – the department would violate its contract with the county. At the end of the eight months, if the fire department failed to meet their probation obligations, then the fire tax rates for citizens of the Cullasaja Fire Department would be impacted. Future repair options could include combing the fire department with a nearby service, such as Clarks Chapel to service the area.

Baird told community members in attendance that if they wanted to ensure the department was in compliance with the 14-member requirement, they should consider completing an application to join the department. He then informed them that it didn’t matter if they had received the training or were able to answer calls, but rather having 14 names on the active list was the main focus at this point.

A motion was then brought forward by a member of the group to change the department’s policy to no longer allow volunteer firefighters to join the department if they do not reside in the Cullasaja fire district. The motion passed with 43 votes in favor of the change – but again, there was no verification regarding the residency or property of those who voted.

On a motion brought forward by Melissa Henry, Bobby Henry’s wife, Bobby Henry was later appointed Acting Fire Chief as Zachary was no longer eligible for the post he had been elected to as he resided in the Fire District but did not own any property.

Zachary raised the question of the validity of Henry being able to serve as the interim head of the department because he does not own the house he lives in. However, Henry said he owned other property and intended to build a house. I requested the documentation of this property from Henry and although he informed me that he would provide it to me, at 7:30 p.m. Friday evening I did not receive it so I am not in a position to verify if Henry is an owner and eligible to serve as a chef or on the fire department at all – or if his wife owns it. If his wife did not own property in the district, she would not have had the right to present a motion to appoint Henry as chief or to vote on it.

According to Cabe, despite the resignation of more than a dozen fire service officers on Thursday evening, and even more removal from the active list due to the new residency requirement, residents of Cullasaja can expect to the same fire coverage and the same effective response times. Cabe noted that volunteer fire departments are often dispatched with mutual aid with neighboring services, therefore additional fire departments such as Franklin Fire or Clarks Chapel would respond to the same calls as Cullasaja to provide coverage for the community.

Cabe will conduct an inspection of the department on Tuesday, when I will have further details on the next steps for the department and the community. We will also formally request all call logs, financial data, regulations, minutes and other public documents from the ministry on Tuesday morning.

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