Earlier this year, the Upper Valley lost its Alaska State Trooper post. Now, a rift between local fire responders and the Mat-Su Borough has disrupted the Talkeetna Fire Department. KTNA’s Phillip Manning has more:
A disagreement between local and borough fire officials has left the Talkeetna Fire Department without either of its senior officers, and with residents wondering what the response capability of the department is.
The dispute centers on when responders are subject to the chain of command. After a trailer rolled over on the Parks Highway with no injuries, Talkeetna Fire Captain Eric Chappel went to the scene. In his mind, Chappel was not acting as a borough responder but a private citizen. He says he offered to use his own vehicle and equipment to right the trailer, but was denied by Deputy Emergency Services Director Ken Barkley, who was also at the scene. Barkley believes that Chappel was acting as a borough responder, since he said over the radio that he was on his way to the scene. Ultimately, another motorist used his truck to set the trailer upright with Chappel’s assistance. Afterwards, Barkley told Chappel that he could not respond to future calls until they had a meeting to discuss the issue.
That meeting never happened, and Chappel went public, posting his version of events on Facebook. That led to the dispute being the main focus of Thurday’s meeting of the Susitna Community Council.
Eric Chappel, Ken Barkley, and Emergency Services Director Bill Gamble all spoke at the meeting. Chappel relayed his version of events, and says that acting chief Eric Denkewalter has left the department in the wake of the disagreement. With Chappel not allowed to respond, that leaves no senior officers for the department.
Ken Barkley then told his version of the day, and says that, as of Thursday’s meeting Eric Chappel has not been terminated. The two men relayed for the public the nature of their last phone contact regarding the incident.
Chappel: “I said I wanted an apology, and I want to, if I say if I’m not working for the borough, I want to not be working for the borough and the borough not to be able to tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Barkley: “And at that point I said, ‘OK, you have to make your decision, and then we’ll go from there.’ That’s where the conversation ended. That’s the last conversation, so he’s not terminated. That’s where we’re at.”
Director Gamble says that while he appreciates the esprit de corps of the Talkeetna Fire Department, and that he agrees it should have its own character, that the rules are important.
“You can bend them a little bit, but you have to follow these guidelines. We don’t set them all by the borough…a lot of them are federal and state mandated guidelines, so you don’t have a choice. Even if Talkeetna became its own fire department, they would still have to follow that. So, the endgame is for everyone to realize that we’re all in this together, and we all have to follow the same set of rules.”
Eric Chappel believes that what he wants is not too much to ask, and would still allow for the rules to be followed.
“I want a definitive way of knowing whether or not I’m working for the borough. I’d like a shirt, a badge, something that, when I put it away, means I’m no longer working for the borough…I’m back to being a citizen. I can help people, because there are scenes that don’t require the borough that I would still like to help people [at]. I want to help people in our community.”
Chappel describes the incident that led to the leadership vacuum as “the last straw,” and compared the Talkeetna Fire Department’s relationship with borough management to a dysfunctional marriage.
After the meeting, Barkley, Chappel, and Gamble were set to meet together in a separate room to try to work toward a solution. The three men and a mediator left the room. Chappel returned just minutes later. He says he asked to record the meeting so that there could be no confusion over what was said and that Barkley and Gamble declined. That leaves the question of what the fire department’s status is as of today. Chappel isn’t sure.
“I don’t know, because without a meeting…I don’t know. But, the last thing I was told from [Ken] Barkley on an official basis was not to respond until we had a meeting, so we’re still beyond that.”
Bill Gamble and Ken Barkley did not respond to a request for comment about the current response capability of the Talkeetna Fire Department. The borough does operate under a system of automatic mutual aid, meaning the Caswell and Willow Fire Departments would automatically be paged in the event of a fire in Talkeetna or Trapper Creek.
The fire department has been added to the agenda for the Talkeetna Community Council meeting on Tuesday.