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Dismissed firefighters speak out

January 18, 1998

Dismissed firefighters speak out

By AMY WALLAUER

Staff Writer

FAIRPLAY - John Routzahn says his dedication to the Fairplay Volunteer Fire Department has been documented throughout his 8 1/2 years as a volunteer.

He works 55 hours a week driving a truck, six days each week, yet responded to more than half of all calls in 1997 - more than any other firefighter with the department. He moved into his home on Fairplay Road so he could be near the fire station in case he was needed.

But last month, Assistant Fire Chief Routzahn was dismissed from the company along with two other members.

"It's pretty bad when you buy a house just to be close to the fire company and they throw you out three months later," Routzhan said.

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Department officials say it was because Routzahn, 24, was no longer an asset to the company, although Routzahn was the top responder at Fairplay Volunteer Fire Company from 1993 to 1997 and held the Emergency Medical Technician of the Year award from 1993 to 1996.

"First of all, just running calls is not the only thing the department does," said Fairplay Fire Chief Leonard Heller.

Heller would not elaborate further on why Routzhan and the others were dismissed.

"Whatever he tells you, that's his decision," Heller said. "Here's what the whole deal is: They can't accept their punishment and this is why they're doing what they're doing."

Bill Pennington, Fairplay Fire Department president, would only say Routzahn's violations were severe.

Routzahn and the two others - Mike Warrenfeltz, 16, and Jody Taylor, 18 - say their termination wasn't based on insubordination.

"How can it be insubordination when no one talked back?" Taylor said.

"It was because we stood up for what was right and we got booted," Warrenfeltz said.

They claim it was either a power play that got them dismissed or being blamed for anonymous letters sent to officials:

* Routzahn ran against current chief Leonard Heller in December for chief in the 1998 election. Warrenfeltz and Taylor nominated him. Although Routzahn lost, he says Heller didn't like the challenge.

* In that same month, three letters were sent to the county's fire and rescue association and others anonymously. One accused Heller of making fraudulent claims to the county by sending in two false reports of damaged gear. The other two suggested officers of the department were misusing funds. The firefighters say they didn't send them, although they believe officials blame them.

Pennington said these accusations are ridiculous and Routzhan is bitter because he lost the election. He doesn't know who sent the letters and doesn't really care, he said.

"I don't think there's any question in my mind that the election stemmed this problem," Pennington said. "John Routzhan very much wanted to be chief. As it turned out, he didn't win chief. There's no question in my mind that's the genesis of the upheaval. A lot of the things they're saying are rather bizarre. We have many of our meetings taped and it's clearly a lie."

Bob Cumberland, administrative planner for the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association, confirms he's seen the letters. They prompted the company to schedule an independent audit for 1997.

"I called the county and said, 'You pick somebody. This has me so mad I can't see straight,' " Pennington said.

The county picked Smith, Elliott, Kearns and Co. in Hagerstown, Pennington said. He said he will release the results of the audit when they become available, hopefully by early spring.

Both Heller and Pennington say all of the other allegations in the letters concerning fraudulent claims to the county are unfounded.

"It was not fraudulent. All the information they have in there is not even close. There's no truth to any of it," Heller said. "The only thing it was was a booking error."

Heller said he's already addressed department members' concerns. Everything has been settled.

So why the audit?

"Just to prove that everybody's wrong," Heller said.

This isn't the first time Fairplay has had internal battles.

Five years ago, Fairplay's executive committee came under attack when members said important decisions were being made without the input of volunteers. Volunteers then said it appeared to be a conflict between new members and more traditional members.

Pennington was singled out by some as deferring or burying issues.

Fire companies are private corporations and anything internal must be handled by that department, Cumberland said. Dismissals, suspensions and other punishments are the department's responsibility.

"We've looked at the letters and have basically turned it over to the company," Cumberland said. "I'm not sure what's happening there, other than it was addressed with the county. We, as the association, didn't personally get involved in it."

As for the accusations against Heller for making fraudulent claims, Cumberland said he's not aware of any impropriety.

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