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City Council defends fire chief, department

By Mark Wineka
mwineka@salisburypost.com
Salisbury City Council came to the defense of Fire Chief Bob Parnell and his department Tuesday, saying a recent newspaper editorial was unfair and based on incomplete information.
Mayor Susan Kluttz said she was outraged by the Aug. 10 editorial in the Charlotte Observer, which said the Fire Department should give a “full, open response” to serious violations cited by the N.C. Department of Labor after the fatal March 7 fire at Salisbury Millwork.
The editorial added the public has a right to expect that substantial changes be made in the department and that a leadership change is in order if Parnell did not own up to his responsibility.
“I am upset about this editorial,” Kluttz said, adding she thought it was important the council make a statement. City Manager David Treme gave a written response last week that was published on the Salisbury Post’s opinion page.
Kluttz said the city is fortunate to have people of the caliber it has leading and serving in the Fire Department, and she wants them to know they have “our full support,” she said.
The Observer erred in implying the Fire Department was not providing complete public information, the mayor charged.
Parnell and Treme made themselves available to all media who requested interviews the same day the Occupational Safety and Health violations were released, Treme said.
They addressed each violation, which found that the department broke state rules at least four times for not ensuring that firefighters remained in visual or voice contact while they were in conditions “immediately dangerous to life and health.”
The state also cited the city for violations related to testing face-piece respirators and ensuring that at least two firefighters remained outside the Salisbury Millwork building when units made the initial attack on the fire.
Salisbury was fined a total of $6,563.
City officials have said the workplace violations did not contribute to the deaths of Salisbury firefighters Justin Monroe and Victor Isler.
Several of the problems cited dealt with policy or paperwork issues, not practices the Fire Department followed that day or how it operates overall, Treme and Parnell have said.
Treme noted again Tuesday the City Council will be purchasing about 65 frontline radios that are more rugged and water-resistant than the standard-issue radios that didn’t work in some cases during the March 7 fire.
In its 2008-2009 budget, the council also approved buying a $30,000 mobile repeater to improve on-site radio signals.
Though it wasn’t listed as a violation, a state investigator recommended the city “take action on the portable radio issues that hampered communication during the fire.”
Management Services Director John Sofley said Wednesday the council will get a budget amendment to cover the new portable radios at its Sept. 2 meeting.
The city delayed purchasing the radios until negotiations with Nextel on an 800 rebanding contract were complete, Sofley said.
Council members said they have responded to the Fire Department’s needs through the years as best they could. The quality of the equipment and resources available to the Fire Department has been reflected in the city’s high insurance rating (ISO 2), putting it among the top departments in the state, Councilman Mark Lewis said.
“You don’t get that rating with a lack of resources,” he said.
Treme said Parnell is a great fire chief who exemplifies “servant leadership.”
In other business Tuesday,
– Kluttz said the city will try to obtain cost estimates for renovating the old Price High School building before appointing a community task force to head the restoration project. Kluttz advised getting the cost estimates before a task force looks at fundraising options.
– The council passed a resolution for Salisbury to participate in the N.C. League of Municipalities’ N.C. Green Challenge.
The challenge calls on cities to adopt a climate protection resolution, create an energy improvement plan, register with the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar program, conduct an energy audit and create a water conservation education program.
– The council approved an application for a $10,239 Justice Assistance Grant. Greg Pannell of the Police Department said the city would share part of the award with the county.
Eighty percent, or $8,191, will go to city police to purchase a mobile graffiti vandalism detection system, which employs cameras to identify vandals. The remaining $2,048 will go to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.
– The council set Feb. 12-13, 2009, as its 24th annual Future Directions and Goal-Setting Retreat.

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