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Firefighters reeling after dismissal of Donnie Kern

by Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News
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The tension was so thick in the Grand Lake Fire Protection District board room that after a series of heartfelt speeches, citizen Jill Korkowski suggested everyone “pause a minute to take three deep breaths.”

As many as 12 volunteer firefighters and an additional five or more citizens attended the monthly meeting to support former full-time technician Donnie Kern, who was forced to resign last month due to reasons undisclosed.

Volunteers from the department are still reeling over the dismissal.

“If you can get rid of someone like Donnie, why am I here?” asked firefighter Frank Loomis, the first volunteer to speak, as board members and Fire Chief Mike Long listened tentatively. “Donnie showed up on all the volunteer stuff. I was always looking for the guys who knew more than me, and Donnie is one of those guys.”

“It pains me to see him leave this department and it makes me question why I’d remain here as a volunteer,” said Gary Billiet, a firefighter for eight years.

Firefighters took turns saying their piece. They touched on Kern’s devotion to Grand Lake Fire during the past 11 years, which equates to around 1,100 emergency calls. They called him “my go-to guy,” “someone everyone can approach,” “a giver, not a taker,” a friend and a brother.

“He’s always been one to look out for the welfare for the people of the department,” said Lt. Brian Wilhelm. Kern was also praised for his commitment to the community, his frequent visits to the school and his time and energy spent on fundraising activities. Firefighters and parents of volunteers talked about how Kern inspired many to join the department and the enthusiasm he had for his job.

Kern started out as a volunteer, then became the department’s first full-time employee nine years ago, earning him an informal association around town as “The face of the Grand Lake Fire Department.”

Although the firefighters stated that they were not privy to the details of Kern’s dismissal, some targeted “a managerial problem” in the district. The board was criticized for not attempting other solutions first, such as conflict resolution, probation or suspension, before leaping to severing Kern’s employment. They asked the board to reconsider.

The board did not reveal any details about events that led to Kern leaving the department and made no action that night.

A Grand Lake firefighting volunteer for six months, Travis Fuqua, has since been hired to fill Kern’s position.

In his own speech to board members, Kern defended his actions surrounding a sick day he’d had in September and a “disobeyed direct order” pertaining to a volunteer’s meeting he’d opted to cancel during Grand Lake’s busy Buffalo Barbecue weekend.

After the meeting, asked if he thought his dismissal (technically a resignation, according to Fire Chief Mike Long) had been handled fairly, he responded, “No. It was not fair.”

“I meant to be a lifer for Grand Lake Fire,” he said in his speech.

Kern’s wife Jodie said there was never any sort of criminal activity that led up to her husband’s last day with the district. She guessed that his dismissal stemmed from a “difference in philosophy.”

In 2005, Grand Lake Fire Protection had its peak number of volunteers at around 35. But volunteerism has waned since, with around 20 firefighters presently committed to the crew. The district also has five full-time paid firefighters.

Long said some volunteers have left on their own accord due to an increased amount of commitment requested while the department readies itself for an impending wildfire, which has the potential to scorch most of the district’s beetle-killed trees and put the community at risk.

A total of 30 volunteers would be ideal for Grand Lake, Long said, but with challenges such as changing demographics in Grand Lake ” with the number of retirees on the rise ” as well as a rather intense four-part menu of training to become a qualified volunteer firefighter, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit members.

“We have increased variables working against us,” Long said.

Even so, he added, Grand Lake’s department is “doing pretty well” for the size of its town.

“Even with the decline in a total number of volunteers on the roster,” he said. “our average staffing remains constant at nine people per call.” And, even after the department thinned, response times improved from 12 minutes, down to 8 minutes, according to Long.

“The quantity has gone down, but the quality improved. We’ve got two-thirds of the department wildland red-carded (a national wildland firefighter certification),” he said.

But, according to firefighters at Wednesday’s meeting, Kern’s unexpected absence from the department has some firefighters second-guessing their own future commitment.

“(Kern) is the life-blood of the department,” Billiet said.

A possible trickle-down-effect from the matter has Long, for one, concerned.

“Our whole focus is to provide the best service we can for emergency response with qualified, competent and safe volunteers. Obviously, 20 competent volunteers is better than five. We value all of our volunteers.” he said.

Since Kern left the department, he has been researching other jobs and helping out a friend with tree work.

He’s also responding to questions from his 10-year-old son, Damien, and 5-year-old daughter, Rowan, according to his wife, reassuring them that “he is still a firefighter, just maybe not at Grand Lake firefighter anymore.”

” To reach Tonya Bina call 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail tbina@grandcountynews.com.


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