Vernon suspends fire department; town administrator steps down

Vernon, Vt., Fire Department.

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VERNON — The Vernon Fire Department is officially back in service.

On Tuesday evening, the Vernon Select Board voted to reopen the department at midnight after several months of rebuilding.

“I am so happy we can say the Vernon Fire Department is back on track and those doors are going to be opened,” said Chris Parker, chairman of the Vernon Select Board.

More than six months ago, the board voted to disband the fire department. Parker posted a letter to the town’s website on Sept. 22, explaining the action was taken after a group of 10 firefighters and EMS providers expressed concerns of toxicity, unsafe practices, lack of in-house training, and overall lack of leadership in the department.

“It was no secret the Vernon Fire Department has been looked at in a negative way,” said Parker on Tuesday night. “There was a lot of turnover in leadership with a lot of different faces coming through that door.”

Following the disbanding of the department, the board appointed an advisory committee to examine what happened and help the department get back up and running.

“The committee has been extremely busy, sometimes meeting two or three times a week,” said David Emery, a Vernon resident and former chief of the Brattleboro Fire Department. Emery was a member of the committee with then-Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi, Guilford Fire Chief Jared Bristol, Marylynn Scherlin, the chairwoman of the Elderly Assistance Board, and Chris LaFlam, Alex Dunklee and Jason Veaudry.

On Oct. 1, the town’s EMS department was put back in service with Zach Rounds, a lieutenant and advanced emergency medical technician at Rescue Inc, instated as deputy chief. Rounds has since resigned his position.

Emery said Tuesday that they had hoped the fire department would be back up and running in January, but because of COVID-19 concerns, interviews and training took longer than they expected.

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“Everyone in the department started from scratch,” said Emery, with the committee recommending to the board that it appoint Alex Dunklee as chief and Spencer Bristol as assistant chief.

“The chief and assistant chief you appointed have been top shelf guys,” said Emery. “I can’t imagine that anybody else could have done a better job than those two.”

He said many of the department’s former members have returned and have been retrained and checked out on the applicable equipment.

“The committee feels extremely proud and happy to suggest that the selectmen reverse their decision and put the fire department back to, as we call it, wheels on the ground,” said Emery.

However, said Emery, the committee recommended that a mutual aid agreement with the towns of Brattleboro and Guilford, as well as Bernardston, Mass., remain in place for a while longer.

Those three departments responded to fire calls in different parts of the town over the past six months.

“We wouldn’t be in this position without the help of the surrounding departments,” said Dunklee, who also thanked the committee and family members who supported everyone through the process.

“We tasked you guys with a very big job and an uncertain job,” said Parker, of the members of the committee. “None of us knew what the outcome was going to be. But all of you stepped forward. This was the best team to rebuild [the department].”

As a result of the rebuild, said Parker, the Vernon Fire Department and its members “will finally get the respect they deserve.”

Emery said the committee also worked on a recommended operating budget and capital replacement budget, made sure all the vehicles were safe and legal, evaluated all the gear, took care of insurance issues and arranged training with the decommissioning crew at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.