On June 14, 2023

25 depart Killington Fire over dispute with chief 


By Katy Savage

Months after a dozen Killington search and rescue members quit or were fired, claiming new Fire Chief Chris LaHart created a toxic work environment, several longtime firefighters have follow suit, citing similar issues.

In total, 25 people have left the department — at least three said they were fired. They include some of Killington’s longest serving and most dedicated volunteers, who’ve responded to the bulk of the alarm calls. Together, they have about 300 years of experience.  

In interviews with more than a dozen people who worked under the chief, a consistent allegation was that he created a culture of fear and intimidation. They said the departure of the most trained emergency responders has left the town in a vulnerable state. 

“The chief is a vindictive bully,” said one person with decades of experience who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. The person remains on the department, claiming there aren’t enough qualified people to respond to calls.

“A lot of my friends in Killington need somebody to respond to their 911 calls,” the person said. “I go in, I put my head down, I go to the truck and then I go.”

There were 40 people on the roster in December 2022, just before LaHart took over in January. The roster included firefighters, emergency medical technicians and the search and rescue team.

There were 24 people on the roster at the end of May— two were inactive due to injury or personal reasons, at least 10 were untrained or newly trained.  The rescue side of the department was declassified from an advanced EMS department to a basic EMS since the town’s four advanced EMTs — Steve Finer, Kristin Brodie, Cathy Cappetta and Denise Coriell—  departed. Records show there are three basic EMTs left — not trained to administer IVs in an emergency or give medications.

Coriell, who had 15 years of experience, was one of three women who filed bulling and sexism complaints against the chief, claiming, in part,  he demoted women from leadership positions.

“None of us wanted to leave under these circumstances,” Coriell said. “Our commitment to the town was great. It came to a point where we felt we were pretty much forced out.” 

Coriell was one of the 13 people who left the department in March after LaHart suddenly took Killington Search and Rescue (KSAR) offline. KSAR members at the time claimed LaHart’s wife Leslie mistakenly introduced a new leader at a March meeting and demanded they listen and comply, which led to a blow up. Coriell said she was fired for standing her ground. LaHart maintains she was never let go. LaHart said KSAR members would not comply with simple paperwork requests to show they were properly trained. 

Coriell and other emergency responders have since moved on from the department. They joined Rescue, Inc. in May and continue to respond to calls. But, Coriell is concerned about the recent departure of firefighters. 

“They left a void of expertise, knowledge, experience — both firefighters and EMS,” Coriell said. “A lot of these firefighters have put in 30 years plus and they have not been acknowledged by the town. It’s a travesty. These people have given their lives to make sure the town is safe  — nobody has acknowledged that. The town has given us no support.” 

All people interviewed said Leslie LaHart, who is not an employee, is part of the toxic culture. She comes to work with her husband everyday. She has access to a town computer and town records. She keeps a desk and manages town equipment.

“His wife is there daily which is a conflict to the station because she’s a very outspoken person, she’s always directing people,” said Tom Rock, who quit at the end of May after tension with the chief reached a boiling point. Rock responded to 155 alarm calls in the last fiscal year and had 33 years of experience. 

“It was very chaotic,” Rock said.  

Rock was hired as the town’s first paid deputy chief— a position he only served for 2.5 weeks. At first, Rock was told he could have a flexible schedule to work around his business. Rock said that changed after his daughter, Ashley Rock, who is also on the fire department, filed a sexual discrimination complaint against LaHart, alleging the chief demoted her for no reason. Rock said his flexible work schedule was suddenly no longer flexible, forcing him to resign.

Rock, a fire warden, said LaHart then called the state to get his fire warden license revoked out of retaliation. LaHart told him the reason was because his business created a conflict of interest with his fire warden duties. 

“He is aggressive, like ‘my way or the highway,’”  Rock said. “I’ve had all sorts of altercations with him. If he doesn’t like you, he finds a way to get rid of you.”  

Rock, who is in the process of joining another department, was part of the committee that hired LaHart. He admitted he thought LaHart’s military background, with decades of management experience, would help the town. 

“I thought he was a decent, genuine guy — good training,” Rock said. 

Rock’s son in law, Josh Stevens, a captain, quit, while Rock’s son, Tom Rock III said he was fired after six years.

Rock III said he was granted a military leave of absence in January 2020. He continued to serve on the department when he was home from the military — about 30 days a year.

“When I go home, I like to help out the community,” Rock III said.

Last time Rock III was home in April, he found his gear was gone and his name was stripped from his locker at the department. Rock III thought the chief retaliated against him out of spite for issues with his father and sister. 

“It was upsetting,” Rock III said. “I asked the chief if I could respond. He blew me off.”

The issues come at a time when the town is transitioning to an all volunteer fire department to a hybrid model, with some paid employees and some volunteers — a measure approved by voters in March 2022 at the request of the volunteer fire department. The hope was to get more people would respond to calls. But, everyone interviewed said LaHart, who is the town’s first paid fire chief, has driven out the people who handled most of the call load.  He’s since replaced some of the experienced roster members with newly trained personnel. 

“It’s like having a high school baseball team go up against the New York Yankees,” Rock said. “There’s not a lot of skill there now to provide a great service.”

Mark Foote, 30, who graduated from the Vermont Fire Academy last month and just obtained his EMS training last year, is now the deputy fire chief and head of EMS. Glenn Burres, 58, was just named the town’s first paid part-time firefighter. Burres moved to Killington about 16 years ago after retiring as the deputy chief of a fire department in Newburgh, New York. He responded to just three alarm calls in Killington in fiscal year 2022, records show.

Despite the challenges, town leaders have steadfastly stood by the chief. 

Select Board member Chris Karr, who owns multiple businesses in town, chalked it up to normal disagreements that come with new leadership.

“I think anytime there is going to be a change of leadership —whatever the business is, whatever department, some are met with resistance because it’s done differently,” Karr said.  “This is a different situation than it was once. This is a town entity. Things have to be done in accordance with town policy.” 

Karr says he is still confident LaHart will make the department better.  

“He has a great background,” Karr said. “I have total faith in LaHart to rise to the occasion and fill his roster. It’s unfortunate things have gone the way they’ve had. I think that he is going to prevail and do a great service to this town.” 

LaHart was most recently the battalion fire chief for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia. He was responsible for daily operations of six fire stations with nine supervisors. 

LaHart said he was too busy to take a call on Monday, June 12 to discuss the recent changes. He did not respond to a subsequent email or a subsequent phone call. 

In April, LaHart sent cease and desist letters to most of the people who left the department, including the Mountain Times, claiming “defamatory and false statements” have been made against him. He said there was a social media campaign against him, #chrislahartisabully and there was door-to-door petitioning “impeding the ability to complete the job I have been appointed.” He requested a retraction and the removal of all relevant social media posts within 10 days, saying the claims have caused him emotional distress.  

Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth declined to comment on the mass departure.

“It’s a volunteer department,” Hagenbarth said. “People are free to come and go. Other than that, I have no comment.” 

Hagenbarth said the town was moving forward with the current roster. 

“We’re going to have a hybrid paid and volunteer fire department,” Hagenbarth said. “It’s going to be different. The hope is we’re going to be able to respond to all the calls. We had a lot of people on the roster but not a lot of people who participated.”

But, most of the people who’ve left held the highest roster spots.

Alan Naylor, a part-time winter resident who splits time in Maryland, quit the department after about 20 years of experience. He was “integral in knowing how to run the equipment and take care of the equipment,” Coriell said. He responded to 114 calls in fiscal year 2022. 

Ron Ottino, who had 32 years of experience, quit and retired. Ottino responded to 163 calls in 2022. Steve Finer, who had 40 years of experience,  also quit and retired. He responded to 178 calls and was involved in all aspects of the department. Finer was an advanced EMT, a firefighter and search and rescue member. 

“There’s a huge respect issue with this guy,” Finer said. “The amount of things that are wrong is mindbaffling.”

Gary Roth, who was on the fire department for 18 years and chief for 10 years, was fired at the end of May.

“I received no notice — nothing that I did anything wrong,” Roth said.  

Roth said he was called into the chief’s office one day. 

“The chief said, ‘I’m getting rid of all the old guard, so you’re not on the roster anymore,’” Roth said.

Roth had also applied to be the paid chief but continued to work under LaHart when he wasn’t selected. Several people interviewed said there were obvious tensions between Roth and the new chief. 

“I have a job, I work in health care,” Roth said. “(Working on the fire department) is not something I have to do. It was something that I did for a long time that I enjoyed and I did it to help the town.” 

Roth said he and other volunteers felt disrespected.

“A lot of people have left — people that I spent a long time supporting and I valued their commitment to the town,” Roth said.  “They want to feel like they’re valued and their sacrifice is noticed. A lot of people spent a lot of time away from their families for little to no compensation. That is not how you manage volunteers. If that’s not the way they want to do things now, that would be one of the contributing factors to so many people not being on the department.”

Bob Schlachter, who led the search and rescue team and had 20 years of experience, resigned at the end of May. He was the former fire chief in Rutland City and came to Killington in 2016. He responded to 95 calls in fiscal year 2022.

“Unfortunately, after the blowup KSAR, I just kind of lost my interest,” Schlachter said. “From my perspective, it was just a no-win situation. Things started to deteriorate, I saw more and more people leaving — more people who were stalwarts of the department.”

Schlachter admitted some of the changes LaHart is implementing are good. Schlachter  said the department lacked needed rules and regulations and LaHart was trying to create more structure.

“He’s striving to set up a much more formal structure in the department,” Schlachter said. “Change upsets people sometimes. People have an opinion because they weren’t being listened to. There was so much emotion. You have people who have been there for a long time and they put their heart and soul into it. And once you hear, ‘OK, we’re throwing everything out, doing this now,’ it’s emotional.”

Schlachter attributed part of the problem to the town’s lack of leadership. 

“It’s just sad that it’s gotten off to a rocky start,” Schlachter said. “I just wish at some point we could have hit the stop button and said, ‘let’s all sit around a table and discuss what the concerns are as a group and see if there’s a path forward. It’s so infuriating in a town the size of Killington that we lost members.”







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