Interim Fire Chief Selected, Residents Have Questions for Fire Board

Campbell County Fire Department Chief of Operations J.R. Fox will serve as Interim Fire Chief  (photo credit: J.R. Fox)

(Gillette, Wyo.) J.R. Fox, division chief of operations, was selected by the Campbell County Joint Powers Fire Board last night to step into the role of interim fire chief after a board meeting that lasted nearly two hours.

Fox will continue to serve in the position until a permanent replacement can be found after William Shank, former fire chief, resigned last week.

Del Shelstad, board chairman, declined to say how long it will take for the board to select a new fire chief and what the board will do to accomplish this, stating that the board will have more answers during their next regularly scheduled meeting in September.

In a separate interview, however, Fox said that the decision could take anywhere from a few months up to eight months depending on how the board chooses to go about it; whether they choose to select a chief in house or out of house.

Shelstad said that the choice to promote Fox wasn’t much of a decision, though it was difficult to choose between him and Dale Izatt, division chief of volunteers, who were both given consideration for the position.

“We have two very capable individuals between J.R. and Dale,” Shelstad said after the meeting. “It’s almost impossible to choose between the two.”

The board has kept a close eye on how Fox and Izatt worked together in past years, noting that they were more than capable of handling department missions, even when the fire chief had been away.

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Fox has been with the CCFD since 1994. He has filled every rank in the organization starting from cadet.

“We think they are still going to. They’ve told us that,” Shelstad said. “We just needed to appoint one person to be the chief, but we had two wonderful employees and we could have leaned on either of them.”

Questions raised

Prior to the announcement of the interim fire chief, several residents utilized the public comment period last night to express several misgivings they have had concerning the board.

Former Campbell County fire fighter Jeff Wagoner addressed the board, saying that it’s a tough situation to remain fire chief in Campbell County and that he was concerned that the board would select a “yes” person—someone who would simply say “yes” to whatever the board said—to fill the role of interim fire chief.

Wagoner motioned at Fox and Izatt, identifying them both as two persons who would be more than capable of leading the department.

“I don’t think any of either of these guys are going to be that (yes) person. I don’t know if you are going to want that,” Wagoner said to the board.

He advised the board to select a leader, support that leader, and be transparent about their decisions as a board.

“For whatever reason, Chief Shank…I don’t know the reasons and I don’t want to speculate,” Wagoner said. “But unfortunately, this man was highly respected by part time, by career, and by non-firefighters and now his office is vacant.”

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He hoped that the board would make the correct decision.

Mandy Reynolds chastised the board for running the department as a business, saying that it is not and that the board needs to spend time talking with the people in the trenches, the people who work every day within the Campbell County Fire Department.

“I would also like to say, and I think our entire community feels this way, if you are prospective chief in our county, then this is where you come for your career to die,” she stated.

Stacy Lara spoke out as well, saying that the board needs to pay closer attention to the department’s budget, which she described as a “budget gone bad.”

“Where is your accountability in this budget?” she asked. “If it was so out of line, isn’t the buck supposed to stop with you guys?”

Additionally, Shelstad sidestepped questions concerning the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Shank.

“I hate to keep saying this, but this is a personnel issue and a sensitive issue and I don’t want to get into personnel issues,” he said. “Those personnel have a right to their privacy, and I think we’ll leave it at that.”

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Shelstad also declined to comment on whether or not more fire fighters have been suspended at this point.

Ready to go

Department issues aside, Fox is more than ready to step in to lead the department to where it needs to be, while fulfilling the primary role of interim fire chief.

“The primary role is to continue with our mission, and that’s to provide professional fire and rescue services to the citizens,” Fox said. “That’s going to be our focus and that’s what we are going to do every single day.”

His plan to mitigate any potential tension between the board and the firefighting personnel is simple- communication.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to the fire chief to relay information from both directions,” Fox explained.

From his point of view, excellent employees are part of the reason he feels so ready to take on the responsibility of the fire chief.

“They’re good at what they do, and that makes the job of the fire chief a lot easier,” said Fox.

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On a personal level, he has devoted a great deal of his career to professional development and to continuous improvement.

“I feel like I’m able to, along with the help of Chief Izatt, to lead this organization until a full time fire chief is appointed,” Fox said.

At this time, Fox is not entertaining any notions to apply for the permanent fire chief position.

“It’s too early for that conversation now,” he said.