Montana’s two westernmost volunteer fire districts on the Interstate 90 corridor say they’ll stop responding to emergencies on I-90 and Highway 135 on Thursday if their grievances against the Montana Highway Patrol aren’t addressed.
The move comes in response to what chiefs Bruce Charles of the West End Volunteer Fire District and Jerry Dockter of the St. Regis Volunteer Fire Department call Highway Patrol’s “current attitude toward the safety procedures and protocol that the fire departments feel necessary to have in place at an emergency scene,” according to a public notice from the chiefs.
“We’ve got more than 60 volunteers between the two districts and they’re all standing down as of Thursday,” Charles said Monday. “That will completely wipe out any properly equipped crash rescue, and anybody with any knowledge, all the way from the Idaho border to Frenchtown (fire district).”
The tiff stems in large part from charges Charles made in written form to state Highway Patrol officials and Attorney General Steve Bullock. Charles claimed that Trooper Richard Hader arrived at an accident scene west of St. Regis in May 2011 at a high rate of speed, ignoring Charles’ signal to slow down, and “drove directly at him in an apparent attempt to hit Chief Charles or intimidate him.”
Charles said he had to move quickly out of Hader’s path.
“Had there been any mental or mechanical failure while Trooper Hader was passing through the choke point between the transiting vehicles in the passing lane and the fire truck and flaggers in the driving lane, there is no question in this writer’s mind that death or injury was a certainty,” he wrote.
Col. Michael Tooley, chief administrator at Highway Patrol headquarters in Helena, said an investigation and a videotape of the incident showed that Charles’ claims were unfounded. Maj. Greg Watson, MHP’s Region 1 commander, showed the videotape to Mineral County commissioners last week.
“From our perspective, we pretty much answered the complaint, so at this point we’re just business as usual,” Tooley said Monday. “We’re going to take care of our end of the public service that we’re paid to do.”
But the fire chiefs and their boards weren’t satisfied.
After the commissioners’ meeting, each board voted to halt volunteer responses to “crash rescues, extrications, emergency medical, HazMat, traffic control, etc.”
“This pending indefinite suspension will start on April 12, 2012, and remain in effect until further notice,” said the notice sent to media outlets, including the Missoulian.
Exceptions will be made if the Mineral County Sheriff’s Department requests help outside the two districts and is on scene when the volunteers arrive.
Charles and Dockter have sent the Highway Patrol and the attorney general three conditions that will change their minds. One is an assurance that patrol cars will enter fire department safety zones at the same speeds as the traveling public is expected to; another is that troopers don’t interfere with fire operations at a scene.
The third is that troopers “courteously interact with our volunteers, including checking in with the fire chief/incident commander when arriving on scene, and if necessary, help the volunteers with flagging to control traffic.”
Charles said a written acknowledgement from Tooley or Bullock’s office that the conditions are reasonable is all it will take to resume or continue responses.
“I have been advised by board members if we can come to an agreement before (Thursday), maybe we can go back to doing what we do,” said Dockter.
“We’ll take a look at that and see what needs to be done to try and get this back on the right track,” Tooley said, “but right now we have a job to do and we’re going to continue to do it.”
The issue escalated recently when Gary Dockter, Jerry Dockter’s brother and a volunteer fireman for the St. Regis fire district, was formally charged with providing false reports to Hader in an investigation of an accident west of Superior that occurred more than a year ago.
Mineral County Undersheriff Mike Boone and the operator of a wrecked semi truck received minor injuries when a passing motorist swerved to avoid a snowplow truck that was crossing I-90. According to a charging document, Gary Dockter gave Hader two conflicting versions of his part in the accident and Hader brought formal charges in district court against Dockter.
Prosecution of the case was turned over to D. Ole Olson, assistant attorney general, since Hader has since married Mineral County Attorney Marcia Boris.
“There was a conflict of interest in that case, and it has been referred to the Prosecution Services Bureau here at the Department of Justice,” Bullock spokesman John Doran said.
Charges were filed on Feb. 21, and Dockter pleaded not guilty in Justice Court on March 12. A trial date has been set for June 16.
On the advice of his attorney, Adam Duerk of Missoula, Hader declined to comment on the case and the brewing feud with the volunteer fire departments. But he had a supporter in Charlee Thompson of St. Regis, who attended the commissioners’ meeting last week and viewed the videotape of the May 2011 accident scene.
Thompson said the tape clearly showed that Hader acted appropriately and “in such a way that I hope all Highway Patrol and law enforcement (officers) respond to an accident.”
“I really expected Jerry Dockter and Bruce Charles to get up and apologize after they saw the video, and say, ‘Hey, you know what? We kind of blew it out of proportion and I’m sorry,’ ” she said. “But that did not happen.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.