On March 22, 2023

Killington Fire & Rescue Chief LaHart responds to allegations from KSAR

Editor’s note: On Thursday, March 16, Killington Fire & Rescue Chief Chris LaHart sent the following letter to Killington Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth detailing his response to a Killington Search and Rescue (KSAR)  letter expressing concerns about his leadership and protocol last week, which were then addressed at the select board meeting Monday, March 20 (see story page 1).   Below is the chief’s letter as submitted to the town manager.  

Chet: 

I am providing the following as referenced in the Mountain Times WRT Letter to the editor Ed 15-21 March 2023. 

Paragraph 1:  I do not dispute the validity of the claim that the SAR unit has been a volunteer organization prior to the transition to a municipal organization. 

Certain members have in fact provided their respective certifications concerning Wilderness First Response. A majority of the members have professed ability but have provided no documentation to substantiate their claim.  I do not dispute their passion, desire to serve, and corporate knowledge of the local terrain. 

The organization has provided me no frame of reference concerning the SAR Standard.  I received a locally written KSAR policy from 2019 on 10 March 2023.  I have emailed Mr. Coppock since Dec. 2022 asking for this type of document.  Since my arrival in January, Asst. Fire Chief Schlachter has been in many discussions two meetings in February alone.  In those meetings I have outlined the requirement for membership.  Mr. Blumenthal, and Mr. Coppock have been involved and engaged with me on the team’s development through the transition.  

The transition has been difficult as the organization’s record keeping and tracking is one that is mostly non-existent.   I received the following for the transition.

A box containing mostly outdated information on personnel and incomplete training records.

1 Chiefs Badge 2 Knox Box keys, and a building key in December from Chief Roth. He later accused me of stealing those items. 

1 Portable Radio

No Administrative access to key programs E-Dispatch and IamResponding.

Incomplete maintenance and testing WRT to Fire and Nothing WRT SAR.

Paragraph 2: I dispute their claim that the relationship was cohesive under Chief Roth.  To paraphrase Chief Roth the fire relationship was one that was supportive when asked.   My position as a public safety manager is one that is proactive.  When a call comes out, it’s a call for service for the entire organization. We are co-dependent, especially when SAR is activated.  

I do not dispute the team’s relationship with other organizations and appreciate their efforts in assisting fire during the wildfire event prior to my arrival.   I do not dispute their training schedule. However, I have asked for consultation on training events for schedule deconflicts and approving the training.  I have received intermittent support from KSAR on that request.  As the head of the organization, I am accountable to the team and the town for the team’s activities.  

Paragraph 3: The teams claim that it would operate as normal is true. I did advise the organization in December and again in January after my arrival in Killington, that I wanted to learn how they do things and observe their integration with other members, agencies, and the public.  However, more than 60 days my requests for information went unabated by the team members and their leadership.   The claim that the team was blindsided on March 6th is false.  The team leader Asst. Chief Schalchter was advised two weeks earlier that I intended to sideline the team for lack of movement with regards to the requests.  If the team was blindsided, that is on the team’s leadership.  

On Monday, March 6, around noon I was advised by Officer Roy of the KPD that Pico Ski Services was searching for a missing skier.  Ski Services had contact with the skier and requested no assistance.  By almost 1500 [3 p.m.] the situation had changed. Officer Roy was on his way to Pico to meet ski services and based on the lack of movement I advised him I would mobilize the team and be prepared to deploy on his order.  The notification was delayed as both heads didn’t answer their phones.  I had Fire and EMS toned out and shortly after Mr. Coppock and Chief Schlachter called in to report the team members were responding.  I maintained command of the Killington portion of the response until Chief Schlachter arrived.  I passed command to him.  The team was not taken offline to NOT provide service.  The skier was located, and no assistance was required by Killington Fire and Rescue Services.  Evidenced in NFIRS Incident 23-000103 as input by Chief Schlachter. However after the incident was resolved, I did place team out of service with the State and Town, enforcing the previous deadline. 

I would also like to note that Mrs. Harvey during our March 10 meeting stated that the above referenced incident, was textbook on how the team operates.  She didn’t understand why I placed the team out of service.  I explained my rationale that the deadline established had passed and she needed to speak with her leadership. 

Additionally, the only documentation provided came from “The Box”.  The data is incomplete or missing in entirety.  The data provided during the initial transition contained nothing that could substantiate the claims as to responsibilities and procedures.  That was a driving force behind the data call as the department organized.  I received on March 10 the first KSAR documentation and while it has information with how the group recruits and operates it has nothing with regards to how they procure, inspect, test, and maintain their life safety equipment. 

Paragraph 4:  Denise Coriell dismissal:  She was not dismissed, however her outburst on

March 7 in front of guests and members did result in my directing her to take her issue outside the facility. She left and did not return.  She was upset, I provided her the option of resigning. She was not dismissed.  She is AEMT who has supported EMS as the head of that program.  She is an asset, and I understand her passion with KSAR, however, she is not allowed to disrupt the operations of the organization. She has tendered a resignation, and I accept it with reservation. 

Jen Robinson dismissal: I dismissed her as result of several negative interactions.  While a passionate outdoor and certainly qualified outdoor guide, she has not provided the organization with any documentation as it relates to technical rescue and ability to teach.  She has continually questioned officers of the department in front of the group.  While she did apologize to Mr. Schlachter, I am not accountable to her and refuse to be interviewed by her.  I pleaded with Mr. Schlachter, Mr.Blumenthal, and Mr. Coppock to reign her in or I would dismiss her.  On the 7th she was rude to our guests, Mr. Giolitto and Mr. Montgomery.  I dismissed her for disrespectful behavior that jeopardizes order and discipline. 

I have not bullied anyone. 

With regards to delivering of discipline.  Killington Fire and Rescue Services is divided into three programs. Fire, EMS, and SAR.  Each program has a head. SAR is headed Mr. Schlachter.  Yes I advised him to dismiss her and collect her equipment.  Should Ms. Robinson want to appeal that decision, I would be the first point in the chain prior to going to the town. She had opportunity to appeal it and chose not to. 

Due process is outlined in town policy, and she is an At-Will Employee.  As the chief of the organization I took an appropriate action based on behavior.  

Paragraph 5: I was aware of the meeting March 7. I set the evaluation of equipment so that SAR members were present.  It is my belief SAR members feel that I must run my decisions by them for approval.  I am sure Mr. Giolitto and Mr. Montgomery can attest to the professionalism displayed by Ms. Robinson and Mrs. Corielle. 

My wife Leslie was present and admittedly misspoke.  I have been told that Mr. Giolitto and Mr. Mongomery also cleared the air after I corrected her. The town is aware that Leslie is assisting me with the administrative side of the files.  She is an office manager and has experience with personnel matters. I have briefed the membership on her roll several times.  Mr. Schalchter and Mrs. Corielle are aware of that.  They chose to remain and reenforce the personal attack. 

The claim that the team must accept the chief’s directives is true.  I have issued two directives only one effects SAR.  That directive was posted in February regarding the public safety building traffic flow pattern.  The other was turn out gear which only effects Fire and EMS.  Emergency services is complex and rules are on going and consist of Administrative Procedures, Operational Guidelines, and other regulatory compliance.  The lack of movement toward forming those for SAR is a mitigating factor in why I placed the team out of service. 

The March 10 meeting I stand by the fact that not adhering to standards and policy is grounds for possible dismissal or suspension.  I have replaced Mr. Schlachter as the head of SAR.  I elected to do that shield him as a volunteer as I knew the decision was unpopular.  Additionally the claim that I have no SAR experience is not totally true.   I have SAR as relates to Seaborne rescue, missing children, and rough terrain off airport crash rescue.   I am currently certified as an incident commander, ICS 300 and 400, Officer 3, Instructor II, and NREMT. I have commanded high angle extractions and confined space rescue. I am more than qualified to be a branch manager for a rescue and incident commander.  On March 6, I demonstrated proper command transfer to Asst Chief Schlachter. 

The allegation that I dismissed women in leadership rolls is false.  Mrs. Corielle resigned. She was not dismissed or the town would have been aware as evidenced in the case of Ms. Robinson.  Mrs. Corielle made a choice as is her right. She was the only program head to resign. As evidenced by the March 8 email to Mrs. Corielle by Mr. Riquier, I had heard my own rumors that she quit and her status was unknown to me as noted in the email.  

That the environment is toxic for women is false.  Mrs. Corielle was appointed by the town with my endorsement as the head of EMS.  She was invited, accepted and unable to attend due personal demands to be part of the EMS gear appropriations as women were under represented with procurement.  Another female member was engaged and made a recommendation. 

Ms. Robinson is not a formal leader.  I have not empowered her in any form to leadership.  It is a carryover from transition.  She is a leader as Vice President of the corporation.  The corporation holds no power or authority with KFRS operations or training. 

The soliciting of males for classes is false.  All training is posted and no females have applied for any classes.  Additionally, to ensure the widest dissemination the opportunities were emailed to the membership body.

It is my recommendation that SAR continue as the state has competing demands. However, the rules, clubhouse environment, and clique established by my predecessors, has no basis for the service they wish to provide. It is a liability. 

In the interest of public safety, member safety, and town liability I stand behind my comments. 

Chris LaHart, Chief 

Killington Fire & Rescue Services

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