Apr 10, 2012 11:15 PM by Irina Cates (KPAX News)
The West End and the St. Regis fire departments will indefinitely halt emergency response to parts of Mineral County beginning on Thursday because they feel that some Montana Highway Patrol troopers are disregarding safety protocols.
This dispute could mean no fire department response to crashes on Highway 135 in the St. Regis area or to the Mineral County I-90 corridor, even in deadly situations.
"We spent hours talking among ourselves before we decided to do this and my problem as a leader is that I am responsible for the people I take out there. My first responsibility to my volunteers is to make sure they don't get hurt so they can serve other people," West End Volunteer Fire Chief Bruce Charles said.
He added the fire departments would still respond to fire calls in their taxpayer districts and in incidents where the Mineral County Sheriff's Office needs help, but the Sheriff's Office would have to be on the scene for the fire department to respond.
The dispute stems from an incident last May on Interstate 90 where Charles feels a MHP trooper drove into the crash scene recklessly and too fast, putting people in danger.
"Instead of getting in line to pass with the rest of the traffic, he just ran right between the fire truck and the other traffic, which we considered was very, very dangerous," Charles said.
But MHP Patrol Chief Colonel Mike Tooley says his agency investigated the complaint and doesn't feel the trooper did anything wrong.
"Since that time, Chief Charles has not accepted our findings and continues to complain about our work in Mineral County," Tooley stated.
Charles says he and the St. Regis fire chief want troopers to be courteous to the volunteer firefighters, to slow down as they drive into a crash scene and they also don't want them to interfere with the fire department's response.
"We already do those things. We do respond appropriately. We do work courteously with the volunteers and we have to coordinate with the fire chief when we arrive, because we both have jobs to do," Tooley said.
Charles says if Tooley means what he says about cooperating with volunteer firefighters then he wants to hear it from him or someone at highway patrol"
"It's real simple to clean up. Colonel Tooley and the two of us could probably do it in 15 minutes," said Charles.
"Hopefully Chief Charles will recognize that this is simply a personality conflict that needs to be resolved by adults," Tooley commented.
He added the MHP will continue serving the public and he hopes the two fire departments will do the same.
The West End and St. Regis fire departments are expecting to hold a meeting Wednesday at 2 p.m. in the commissioners room in the Mineral County Courthouse in Superior.