On March 22, 2023

Killington Select Board denies separate department for KSAR, stands with new chief

By Katy Savage

Seventeen current and former members of the Killington Search and Rescue team resigned in a letter to town officials on March 12 saying the new fire chief created a toxic work environment and mistreated women, but the Select Board largely dismissed the claims at a meeting on March 20.

The male town officials dominated the conversation at the two-plus hour Select Board meeting, telling KSAR members their claims were unfounded, despite KSAR’s vote of “no confidence” in fire Chief Chris LaHart, who stepped into his role in January. 

Board members met in executive session for over an hour before voting to stand behind the fire chief.

“We give full confidence in you to run the department,” Select Board member Jim Haff told the chief when they came back to session. “Hopefully everybody here can work things out, get back together being a team.” 

The motion was approved, with Select Board member Steve Finneron abstaining.

“I don’t feel strongly one way or another,” Finneron said. “I’m certainly not opposed to Chris LaHart.”

About half of departments 40  members said they have no intention of volunteering under LaHart. 

“I won’t stand for these people being disrespected,” Dave Coppack, one of the leaders of KSAR, said the day after the meeting. “Some of the best members of our team are women, they’re the teachers, they’re the experts.”

About 70 people attended the Select Board meeting, both in person and on Zoom. 

KSAR members told the board the chief was toxic toward women, explaining he, on one occasion, only asked male members of KSAR to serve on the fire department and deliberately skipped over talking to women volunteers.

KSAR members claimed LaHart dismissed two females in leadership positions, one of which was Denise Coriell, a 15-year volunteer and head of first response. 

Coriell said there was a March 7 meeting in which Police Chief Whit Montgomery and Bob Giolito, KSAR’s original founders, were mistakenly introduced by LaHart’s wife Leslie as the new heads of KSAR. KSAR members later learned Montgomery and Giolito were only there to evaluate KSAR’s equipment, but the misunderstanding caused a rift. 

“I stood up and said, ‘this is ridiculous,’” Coriell told Select Board members. Coriell said she told LaHart, “You’re taking our autonomy away, you’re taking our house away.”

LaHart then dismissed her, Coriell said.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I want your resignation, put it on my desk,’” Coriell said. “I have never felt unsafe, disrespected and discriminated against as an employee as I have experienced in the last seven weeks by the new chief Lahart and his wife, Leslie.”

Coriell said the fire chief later reversed his decision and claimed he never asked for a resignation.

In a March 16 letter to the Select Board (and printed on page 9), LaHart further emphasized Coriell was not dismissed. He called Coriell an “asset” but her “outburst” at the March 7 meeting was  “not allowed.” 

Select Board members, who were not part of the KSAR meeting, told Coriell she was not asked to resign. 

“Nobody ever talks about you resigning,” Haff told Coriell.

When KSAR members tried to speak about discrimination, town officials shot them down.

“That part of it is personnel and it doesn’t get discussed in open meetings,” Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth said. 

KSAR members explained the new fire chief bullied them and frequently interrupted their meetings. But, Haff (who spoke for most at the meeting) explained there was a chain of command that KSAR needed to follow. 

“I don’t think it’s fair saying the chief interrupted your meeting,” Haff said. 

KSAR members pushed back.

“The problem was the way in which he did it,” said Ashley Murray, a new member of KSAR. “He was unwilling to work with (KSAR) and it seemed very much like he just wanted to start from scratch. I didn’t feel like it was a fair situation to watch my superiors be put in.”

Jen Robinson, who was the technical leader of KSAR, could not attend the Select Board meeting. She said by phone she was fired after a couple of interactions with the fire chief. 

Robinson said a few weeks before she was fired, she noticed the door to KSAR equipment, which is usually open, was locked. Robinson confronted Bob Schlachter, one of the leaders of KSAR, about it. 

“Chris was standing right beside me,” Robinson said. I had not met Chris yet. Chris interrupted my discussion with Bob and demanded to know who I was.” 

Robinson admitted her response to the new chief was “a little snarky.” 

Robinson said she was disciplined by LaHart the next time she was in the office, where the chief called her disrespectful and insubordinate. 

Robinson later apologized to Schlachter, with LaHart listening to the conversation. LaHart reprimanded Robinson again and called her apology to Schlachter condescending.

Lahart then asked Schlachter to fire Robisnon.
“I have a good relationship with Bob,” Robinson said. “He said it was probably the hardest thing he’s had to do.” 

Robinson echoed concerns from other women about LaHart.  

“I feel he does not tolerate women in leadership positions,” Robinson said. 

LaHart explained Robinson’s dismissal in his March 16 letter, saying he pleaded with male members of KSAR to “reign her in” or he would let Robinson go.

LaHart said Robinson was “rude” to Montgomery and Giolito on March 7. 

“I dismissed her for disrespectful behavior that jeopardizes order and discipline,” LaHart wrote in his letter. “I have not bullied anyone.” 

LaHart admitted to making changes to both KSAR and the fire department, explaining he spent his first 90 days in the position evaluating the equipment and standards.

“My hangup with KSAR is two fold,” LaHart said at the meeting, Monday night.

First, he said he tried to gather information about KSAR’s gear and he requested KSAR members’ certification for liability purposes. But KSAR members never provided it.  

“The firehouse… the record keeping, it’s not up to where I think it should be,” LaHart said. 

LaHart took KSAR offline on March 9 due to liability concerns, preventing them from searching and rescuing any more people. 

After KSAR departed, LaHart asked the City of Rutland Search and Rescue team to evaluate KSAR’s equipment. The city found the ropes and training logs kept by KSAR weren’t up to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.  

“It did not provide a roster of names, total time of the actual training event or training subject matter,” the evaluation letter from Deputy Chief Daniel Gedney said on March 18.

The evaluation found there were no formal certification documents on file for KSAR members. And, rope equipment used by KSAR to rescue people was outdated. 

But KSAR members pushed back about the NFPA standards.

“You’re holding us to a level that we haven’t held to before,” former KSAR member Steve Finer said.  

Much of what KSAR does is search for people who ski out of bounds in the backcountry at Killington Resort.  Members are also trained to do high angle rope rescues on Deer Leap, which is a popular rock climbing location. 

Drew Clymer, the state search and rescue coordinator, said NFPA standards are difficult to meet. And, Stowe Search and Rescue — considered one of the best in the nation— likely doesn’t even meet all NFPA standards.

“There’s high technical rescue and there’s backcountry search and rescue,” Clymer said. “Those are completely different skill sets and I think they’re becoming conflated. The gap that’s currently existing in your region is backcountry rescue.” 

Clymer said there have been six skiers lost in the backcountry since KSAR was taken offline. 

“I lost an asset in the area and I’d like to see how this is going to play out,” he said. “There’s a glaring hole in the backcountry rescue right now.”

LaHart, who moved from North Carolina with decades of experience from a 200-person fire department, declined to comment on the issues presented by KSAR members when contacted by the Mountain Times.

He said prior to KSAR’s departure that he wanted to have a roster of 100 volunteers.  

“I have removed some of the residential constraints,” he said, explaining the department formerly had a residency requirement of members to live in a town that bordered Killington. 

“If you can give 4-5 hours of time to learn what we do and show up and respond…I’m willing to train you,” LaHart said prior to the meeting. 

LaHart emphasized Monday night that KSAR members are not equipped to do high angle rescues. 

“The ropes and the technical rescues, they’re not prepared to do it,” he said. “ I’m not saying they’re not passionate about it. I’ve never taken that away from them.” 

LaHart said the backcountry rescue could resume. “I know their knowledge of the woods is intimate,”  he said. “I think the ground pounding element is something that’s easily fixed with some basic training.”

But, leaders of KSAR said they likely wouldn’t return. Coriell said KSAR members are exploring possibilities elsewhere. 

“I would not go back with that chief,” Coriell said, explaining KSAR’s voices weren’t heard at the meeting.

“I don’t think we got very far,” she said. “Some of the issues really weren’t addressed the way we were hoping.”

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