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KSAR submits letter of no confidence in new fire chief after being called off search for lost skier

Suggests creation of separate public safety agency

Editor’s note: On Monday, March 13, 17 members of Killington Search and Rescue (KSAR) submitted the following letter (dated March 12) to Killington Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth detailing their vote of no confidence in newly hired fire chief Chris LaHart. The organization seeks a “collaborative discussion with Killington town officials to determine a practical solution to separate”  from Chief LaHart’s fire department so it can continue to serve the town and region. More discussion is expected at the Select Board meeting, Monday, March 20.  Below is the letter as submitted to the town manager from KSAR.   

Mr. Hagenbarth, 

Killington Search and Rescue (KSAR) has been a volunteer search and rescue team in Killington, Vermont since 2012, recognized by the Vermont Search and Rescue authorities. KSAR has earned and maintains certifications in Wilderness First Response and Search and Rescue (SAR) standards. The team has expert institutional knowledge of the local area and is trained and experienced in a variety of wilderness situations, all weather, and available on a 24/7 basis, 365 days per year. 

KSAR has functioned as a cohesive asset within Killington Fire Rescue (KFR) under the leadership of former Chief Gary Roth. We have responded to countless emergencies, including wild land fire. The team trains together at least monthly. Training has included attending and assisting with annual state SAR events as well as Vermont State Police SAR Team trainings. In addition KSAR team members seamlessly work together and teach one another, bringing up the level of each member and the team as a whole. 

The January 2023 the town of Killington KFR transitioned from volunteer to a municipal department, with a full time paid chief. This has unfortunately and unexpectedly created an adversarial and toxic environment for KSAR members. Chief LaHart initially informed the team it would function as it has and he would learn how we worked. However, the team was blindsided on March 6 after a routine call out for a lost skier in the Pico Backcountry. At this time he took the team “off line” (out of service) , advising KSAR it was a liability, claiming there was no documentation to verify member certifications and qualifications. Said information was shared with him prior to his arrival. KSAR training, certification, and callout logs back to 2012 are maintained by KFR. 

To date, Chief LaHart has reprimanded, bullied, and dismissed team members Denise Coriell (AEMT head of 1st Response and KSAR leader) and Jennifer Robinson (KSAR technical leader) from KFR responsibilities for being insubordinate and disrespectful. Though Denise was personally informed otherwise, Chief LaHart now claims she was not dismissed. Chief LaHart states that chain of command and respect are of utmost importance to him. He, however, has not shown respect to the team, by ordering other team members to deliver his disciplinary messages with no written warning, discussion, and/or due process. KSAR members have lost trust and confidence in Chief LaHart for these matters and others such as lack of communication, untruthfulness, and sexism as described below. 

On March 7 KSAR was holding a scheduled team meeting (9 members present) which was suddenly interrupted by Chief LaHart and his wife Leslie LaHart, accompanied by visitors Killington Police Chief Montgomery and Robert Giolito. Leslie LaHart then abruptly stated the team is to now accept the visitors as the new KSAR leaders. Furthermore, they would be evaluating the team’s practices, procedures, and equipment starting that moment. Subsequently within minutes the Chief dismissed Jen and Denise from KSAR, for questioning the qualifications and decision to have Montgomery and Giolito take over. Also, it is unclear where Leslie LeHart falls in the chain of command as given her disruptive interactions with the group. 

Since the March 7 meeting, the team has been ordered to accept Chief LaHart’s directives without questioning and with due respect. A subsequent March 10 KSAR meeting (2 members present) with Chief LaHart further revealed he will not change his stance and that questioning his directives will not be tolerated and is considered insubordinate and disrespectful. Chief LaHart also stated he is personally replacing Bob Schlachter as the KSAR Team Leader, though Chief LaHart readily admits he has no SAR experience.

Most of the KSAR members have observed multiple incidents that give the team extreme concern about Chief LaHart’s treatment of its volunteers, especially women. KSAR feels Chief LaHart has created a toxic intimidating environment for female members at this time, given the dismissal of two women in leadership positions. At a meeting earlier in March, the Chief questioned only male members if they were interested in fire certification, though female members were present at the time. In addition, members are uncomfortable meeting alone with Chief LaHart due to his bullying behavior and contradictory opinions. 

KSAR members would like to continue to serve the Town of Killington and State of Vermont at this time and are unable to serve under Chief LaHart given the experiences thus far in the past seven weeks. 

Going forward KSAR members request at this time:

Collaborative discussion with Killington Town Officials to determine a practical solution to separate from Chief LaHart’s adversarial and toxic environment. One idea could be modeled after Stowe Mountain Rescue, which is one of five Stowe Public Safety Agencies funded primarily by the town and donors. 

This letter to be shared with the Town Select Board in a timely manner. 

Respectfully submitted, 

Seventeen KSAR members current, and those recently dismissed or resigned per attached Sunday (March 12) ‘roll call’ letter sharing —  wet signatures available on request. 

Bob Schlachter, Dave Coppock, Joel Blumenthal, Murray McGrath, Jen Robinson, Denise Coriell, Amelia Gardner, Steve Finer, Jon Prendergast, Connor McGrath, William Guban, Nick De Maio, Ashley Murray, Zack Wilkins, Cathy Cappetta, Courtney Harvey, Nate Harvey. 

4 comments on “KSAR submits letter of no confidence in new fire chief after being called off search for lost skier

  1. We really hope that you and all 17 people are ready to issue an apology to the LaHarts’ on Tuesday morning.

  2. NONE OF THAT IS TRUE. Come Monday and find out the FACTS! Shame on releasing this before you had all the facts.

  3. Maybe the city should have done background checks and checked out how/ what the new chief did back when he was a battalion chief for the navy!

  4. LaHart was a terrible leader at his last job in Virginia and would do the same things. Don’t let him get away with it up there in VT

Comments are closed.

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