This act of firing by Chief White was retaliatory for Volunteer Battalion Chief Antonio Moreno’s commitment to preserving the volunteer firefighters in Amador County. Antonio Moreno’s termination should be reversed and the continued employment of Walt White as the AFPD Chief should be reconsidered by the AFPD Fire Board.
Chief White fired Battalion Chief Moreno illegally. Under California Labor Law, Volunteer Firefighters are deemed employees and have certain employee rights. They are also protected by the Firefighter Bill of Rights. The Board authorized the Fire Chief to dismiss Battalion Chief Moreno in an illegal closed session, and in doing so, violated these Labor Laws and California’s Brown Act, not to mention Antonio’s civil rights.
Antonio has done more to recruit, promote, train and inspire volunteer firefighters than any other person in the organization. By dismissing him, AFPD has discarded decades of area and community knowledge, emergency planning, training and dedication. By removing him from service, they will undoubtedly be increasing the average response time for a 9-1-1 caller to be assisted in the 245 area, because as the members of this community know, when Antonio is one of the first responders on a call, he is often there within minutes because he lives right here among us. By firing Antonio, they are placing citizens in the Plymouth area at risk.
To shed light on some of the occurrences that led up to the dismissal of Antonio, here are some important facts. In recent attempts to explain the importance of the Volunteer Firefighters, Antonio provided documentation to the Board that shows an average of 1.8 volunteer firefighters responded per call in the Plymouth area in 2020. That often means that when paid crews are responding to an incident, a volunteer unit is available to respond to the incident or if another emergency arises. Except for the Rancheria Casino, which pays for an two staffed fire engines, no other AFPD area has that volunteer capability, and it is due to the dedication of the volunteers and the tutelage of Antonio.
To better understand what has happened since Chief Walt White was hired by AFPD in 2018, here are some highlights:
• Shortly after being hired, Chief White removed Antonio Moreno as OES Emergency Area Coordinator and covertly tried to get himself assigned to the position without confirmation of the Local Area Fire Chiefs, which is required. He was caught while trying to accomplish this. When a complaint was filed against him, the Board of Directors chose to ignore it.
• Since then, the Chief has systematically and methodically removed Antonio’s other responsibilities until his only duty left as a Battalion Chief was to respond to calls.
• Walt White has created animosity with the other local Fire Agencies (Sutter Creek, Jackson, Ione and Jackson Valley), yet he prides himself on making agreements with El Dorado Hills Fire, Pioneer Fire District in El Dorado County as well as Wilton and Herald in Sacramento County. It is to the detriment of our communities that our Chief is politicking outside of our area without having united fire protection within our county. Our internal issues must be addressed before we can tackle new ventures.
• Chief White tried to push through new fees and when called out for a lack of transparency, was incapable of providing accurate reporting and documentation. He has knowingly utilized false documentation and proven inaccurate financial studies to increase fees to the community.
• White has used his position as AFPD Fire Chief to testify in front of the State Legislature on the need for Air Ambulances, even though at the time he was a contract employee for Reach Air Ambulance (according to his on-line profile). This is a clear conflict of interest, yet ignored by the Board.
• White has no ties to the community, and doesn’t even live within Amador County. He does not have the community interest at heart. He was hired by AFPD as the Fire Chief after his contract was not renewed by the City of Sacramento; later, he stated at a public meeting that he came here because Amador had a different retirement system. In my opinion, when he is done wreaking havoc in Amador County, he will be able to walk away, but Amador County residents will be left with an empty bank account and greater risk than when he arrived.
• It appears Chief White has created a hostile work environment within AFPD, when so many people are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.
• Chief White stated at a public meeting that the Emergency Response Fee was to pay for an upgrade to Paramedic services, but when I asked for a copy of the Financial Cost Analysis for the Paramedic program, I was informed that one had not been done. How do you fund a program when you have no idea what the cost is? This program that was promised to start July 2019 has yet to be implemented.
• It is Chief White’s responsibility to ensure placement and use of appropriate types of apparatus that are conducive to the areas they serve. The District had purchased new city-type fire engines (not rural type) at a relatively high cost. One of these in service upcountry has required towing several times when it got stuck due to road conditions. Many homes are on smaller, unpaved roads that these large engines cannot access due to size and weight, nor provide assistance when an emergency arises.
• Measure M tax was put into place to support the Volunteer Base with paid staff, not replace them. What Chief White is doing is not financially sustainable here in our community. Take a look at neighboring counties that have eliminated or reduced the volunteer firefighters and are now financially unstable and closing stations and eliminating positions placing their county at risk with lengthier response times. Chief White is putting us on the same path for failure and danger that these other departments have taken. Don’t fall for his political grandstanding with the latest press release (click here). He is not looking to the future of Amador County’s safety.
Safety of the Community
• Chief White allows reduction in services and abandonment of response areas countywide for on-duty engine companies to attend Board meetings to serve his purposes. Meetings should be completed via video conferencing which doesn’t put at risk response times.
• The County has an Emergency Response Map that sends the closest unit to an emergency incident regardless of Fire District borders. This ensured the quickest response to a call for assistance. Chief White unilaterally modified the response map to send remote AFPD engines to these areas that were closer to the other fire agencies simply to increase AFPD income from Measure M money. In doing so he increased response times to the folks in these areas and reduced the number of available fire companies in the core areas of AFPD, placing constituents at higher risk. How many people’s lives have been impacted by this political play?
• Chief Walt White has recently released a statement claiming he is recruiting volunteers from outside of Amador County. Why is this being encouraged when the very purpose of a volunteer is to have faster response times because of living locally partnered with their knowledge of the community and roads. We are a small rural community and our safety is dependent on our local volunteer fire force. In 2018, Fire Chief Kim Zagaris of the State Office of Emergency Services was quoted: “Every minute counts after a fire breaks out – a quick response can be the difference between a small brush fire and a blaze that burns for weeks. That means a rural community with a depleted volunteer firefighting force is at greater risk.” It is physically impossible to rely and benefit from volunteer firefighters that do not live locally. Chief White’s plan is flawed.
• Chief White has been trying to covertly attack and reduce the volunteer fire force to increase his agenda of increasing paid firefighters. Last year he tried to slip through a Volunteer Firefighter Policy Manual through the Board without any input from the volunteers. This manual stated that the volunteers were not employees, had no rights, and could be terminated for no reason. It also mandated that volunteers would have to work a certain number of 24-hour shifts per month to continue being a volunteer with AFPD. It was only upon public outcry at the Board meeting, that the Fire Chief was instructed to meet with the volunteers prior to presenting the document. Instead of following that direction, an independent consultant was hired to perform an assessment of the District’s volunteer program and provide recommendations for how to improve recruitment, retention, growth, and continued success of the volunteer program. It took an entire year to complete this study. The 19-page PowerPoint presentation to the Board did not include results from the online survey completed by the fire personnel, interview results, statistical data in regards to training and response numbers. The presentation contained items not within the scope of work such as:
1. Comparisons with Sacramento County
2. 4-person engine companies
3. Career firefighter program
4. Intern program
5. High school ROP program
6. Mandatory annual 10 week volunteer academy
• When citizens requested a copy of the study, they were told the PowerPoint presentation was all the documentation available and the rest was the property of the private consultant. This is a false statement as the contract states: “The District retains the exclusive rights of ownership to the work products, inventions and confidential information produced for the District by the Consultant.” Questions from this study and its process remain:
1. Why are the results of this study not transparent and public knowledge when it was paid for with tax payer monies?
2. What have the “continuous recruitment efforts” of AFPD been over the last five years?
3. What is the consistency of training and record-keeping and who’s responsibility is it?
4. Why have volunteer numbers in AFPD declined?
5. Will volunteers be mandated to work shifts?
6. Since the appeal authority resides solely with the Fire Chief, what happens if the appeal is against him?
7. Are volunteers being recruited outside Amador County?
8. Was the High School ROP incorporated into the program because the independent consultant is involved in that program, and is that a conflict of interest?
The entire results, notes, surveys, study and interviews were paid with public funds and should be readily available to the public and the District should be transparent with the results. However instead, it appears that public funds were misspent and the scope of work was not followed.
• The latest press release touts Chief White’s expansion of the volunteer program and an El Dorado County fire company staffing the Fiddletown station. Look closely for “wordsmithing,” just using words that he wants you to hear. Questions that need to be asked about this expansion are:
1. Are the new volunteer recruits Amador County residents?
2. Why are Sutter Creek, Ione and Jackson not included in the grant for recruitment and training of volunteers, but CalFire contracts and agencies outside Amador are?
3. Is the AFPD Chief not interested in working in conjunction with other Amador County agencies that he is going to have to depend on in an emergency?
4. Is this a true volunteer program or is it really a paid intern program?
5. Is moving to an intern program going to increase costs versus the current volunteer program?
6. Why does it seem that the Chief is more interested in helping outside agencies than those protecting Amador County citizens?
7. What is the agreement for Pioneer Fire District to staff the Fiddletown station and the cost to citizens? Is the contract available to the public? Can it be posted on their social media page?
Fire Board Accountability
It was one year ago, when voting to adopt the medical service fee AFPD Board Member Richard Forester argued that if the fee could save one life and makes a difference, the Board should pass it. What happened to that philosophy? Antonio Moreno’s service over the last four decades HAS made a difference and HAS saved countless lives which is made apparent by the outcry from the communities on social media. It now appears that Forester’s political agenda and personal bias has preempted his commitment to serve the community by approving the dismissal of a volunteer who has made a positive impact on so many lives. Unfortunately the majority of the Board has followed Forester’s lead, and authorized the Fire Chief to dismiss Volunteer Battalion Chief Antonio Moreno in an illegal closed session, and in doing so, violated his rights. Antonio should be reinstated immediately and Chief White held accountable for his actions.
As well, it is time to remove the Board of Supervisors as the AFPD Board. It is no longer appropriate for them to continue in this capacity. There is an appearance of conflict of interest when it comes to the County Supervisors doling out State provided monies to all the local fire agencies when they are the fire board for AFPD. It is time to elect true representatives to the AFPD Board that can keep the Fire Chief honest and transparent and doing the best for the communities while staying within budget.
Frank H. Moreno