Fire chief, assistant chief suspensions downgraded to reprimands

Wednesday, April 30, 2008 | 9:17 p.m. CDT; updated 1:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Boone County Fire Protection District Chief Steve Paulsell and Assistant Fire Chief Doug Westhoff were suspended in early April in connection with the fire district’s falsification of its application for FBI bomb squad recertification, which has cost the district and the county its only certified bomb squad.

But board Chairman John Gordon then changed his vote, rescinding the suspensions after learning that the fire district’s bomb squad could eventually regain its certification.

Fire district bomb squad timeline

2002-2007: November 2002 — Fire district begins its FBI-certified bomb squad. November 2004 — Bomb Squad Commander Ken Hines leaves for active duty in the Coast Guard. Captain Kirk Hankins becomes de facto commander. July 2007 — Hines officially leaves the fire district. December 2007 — FBI gives routine reassessment of the fire district bomb squad’s certification. 2008: April 7 — Fire district board suspends Fire Chief Steve Paulsell for five days and Assistant Chief Doug Westhoff for three days. Hankins is fired from the district. April 9 — Fire District receives official letter from the FBI stating the bomb squad will be suspended until minimum requirements are met. April 10 — Board Chairman John Gordon rescinds suspensions of Paulsell and Westhoff, instead giving them a written reprimand. April 18 — FBI explains to the board what is required for a certified squad. April 29 — Board decides to have fire district staff research the financial impact of hiring a new member who is eligible for the FBI’s Hazardous Device School. Mid-May — Fire district staff’s results are due to the board. Early June — Board will decide if the fire district will keep its squad or give it up.

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According to board minutes published on the fire district’s Web site, board members Dave Griggs, Shelly Dometrorch and Gordon also voted to terminate the appointment of acting bomb squad commander Kirk Hankins, whose applications for the FBI’s Hazardous Device School are at the center of debate.

The FBI’s decertification of the fire district’s bomb squad leaves the county without an FBI-certified squad. Columbia has its own bomb squad, but it is not FBI-certified and can’t cover the fire district’s area. That leaves the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s squad to respond to calls from its headquarters in Jefferson City.

A busy year for the fire district’s bomb squad is about 10 calls for explosive devices, so the squad hasn’t been in high demand. But it does leave the fire district with several hundred thousand dollars worth of bomb-detecting equipment, including a remote-controlled robot.

At a closed meeting on April 7, the three-member board voted to suspend Paulsell and Westhoff for their part in losing the squad. Westhoff is in charge of special operations, including the bomb squad.

In a reassessment visit to the fire district in December, the FBI discovered Hankins’ application to the FBI’s school contained false information. If the original application had been marked correctly, Hankins would not have qualified. The application to the school to recertify was marked the same way.

However, two days later, the board received a letter from the FBI, which Gordon said changed his mind about suspending Westhoff and Paulsell. He said he was under the impression the bomb squad was going to be fully decertified. Instead, the letter said the squad would be suspended until the fire district can meet certification requirements.

At a closed meeting April 10, Gordon and Griggs voted to rescind the suspensions, opting instead for written reprimands of Paulsell and Westhoff.

Griggs had also voted against the suspension in the April 7 meeting. “(The squad was) recertified in 2004 with no problems, but since then, (the FBI bomb school) has become more strict,” he said. “The rules have really tightened up on the requirements about who can go to the school.”

Dometrorch said she wanted Paulsell and Westhoff to be suspended because the letter didn’t change the reasons for suspension. “The difference in semantics really didn’t matter,” she said. “It didn’t change the fact that the applications were falsified to attend the school. The reasons we gave for the disciplinary action did not change based on the status of the squad.”

Neither Paulsell nor Westhoff were available for comment. Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp returned a call and said neither would comment on the situation.

In a closed meeting April 18, the newly expanded five-person board met with FBI agents to clarify the rules for certification and the standing of the squad.

Meanwhile, the board met Tuesday in another closed meeting. It must decide if the fire district should hire a new staff member who is already qualified, train a current member or give up its certification entirely.

Griggs made a motion to have the fire district staff conduct research to determine:

  • If any members of the current staff or volunteers already meet any of the qualifications to attend the FBI bomb school;
  • What the financial impact would be of hiring a new person already certified or hiring a volunteer to the staff; and
  • What other job roles the new person would have.

The board approved the motion, though not unanimously. The staff will have the results by May 15, and the board will then decide what official option to take.

“By the first of June, we will have come to a final conclusion,” Griggs said. “It is important that we really determine if we have viable options before we move forward.” Griggs said a best-case scenario would have someone from the fire district certified in six to eight months.

Negotiations between the fire district and the city of Columbia, which both thought might produce a solution, have been abandoned because the FBI requires that the squad’s commander be a salaried fire district staff member, not a contractor.

“Even if we could have a commander from outside of the fire district, I’m not clear on why we would want to sponsor and insure a squad that we don’t have anyone on,” Dometrorch said, adding that she doesn’t think a fire district-sponsored bomb squad “realistically can be done.”

No fire district staff member currently qualifies to attend the FBI bomb school, meaning it could take two years for the fire district to have a certified member and squad. The wait is long because no member is eligible to attend the school without legal arrest powers.

In Missouri, law-enforcement certification requires 680 hours of training. Once a member goes through the training and becomes eligible, the waiting list for the school is at least 14 months. The “six to eight months” scenario is only possible if the FBI fast-tracks the application to the school after the staff hires an eligible candidate.

If the board decides to not keep the certification number, the FBI would then determine where to reassign the number. The process to certify a new squad could also take a few years.

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