By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Mid-way through an interview with the much-maligned J. Kevin Henson, chief of Marion County Fire District No. 1, an ambulance from MCFD’s Silverton station drove by the Keizertimes office bringing the interview to a halt.
Both the interviewee and the interviewers questioned the presence of the unit, which was far from is base of operations, but had an entirely legitimate reason for being in Keizer – it was assisting the Keizer Fire District with a call west of the paper’s office on Chemawa Road North.
Henson makes no bones about having ruffled feathers since joining MCFD as its chief in 2008, but emotions about the chief and the way he’s brought about change to the district reached another peak recently when he was involved in a crash on New Year’s Eve 2010 while responding to a commercial fire. Henson was injured in a rollover wreck, but the presence of a gun in his truck sparked more ire from the firefighters with MCFD and prompted pickets and numerous calls for his resignation. The disruption that the Silverton ambulance caused during the interview is just one more effect of the ongoing tension, he said.
“Our organization is in a period of high stress and drama,” Henson said. “When we’re in that environment everybody is at high risk for misinterpretation.”
Henson was hired in 2008 and tasked with correcting “good old boy” practices that were part of daily operations at MCFD1, said Randy Franke, a member of the MCFD Fire Board.
“People were being protected [after doing something wrong] if they knew the right person. Others who would do the same thing would get reprimanded,” Franke, one of Henson’s most ardent supporters, said.
Past practices needed to be changed if the district was to be successful in building the Willamette Valley Fire and Rescue Authority, an organization combining the efforts of MCFD1 and the Turner Fire District.
As Henson took the reins, he said he discovered the problems went beyond personnel issues and into professional conduct territory that might have endangered the lives of district employees and volunteers.
“We were advertising that we had people responding in wildland urban interface [forest fire] roles and would end up sending people not completely qualified for those roles, or we would send them out with the wrong personal protective equipment, literally the wrong suit for the job,” Henson said.
One of his first acts was taking care of outstanding unfair practice claims from before his arrival which he “decided in favor of the employees because it was the right thing to do,” he said.
After that he set to revamping the district’s training program with an emphasis on accountability, an area he saw as a weakness in the district.
“There’s no question that there were casualties. There were some people who did not like that and, as I stood up to it ,the department split,” Henson said.
In retrospect, Henson takes responsibility for some of the actions which led to the falling out.
“I am Type A and I’m fix-it oriented. I could have and probably should have let some things work out through other processes, what’s key about that time is you get buy-in and I was impatient,” he said.
Soon disgruntlement turned to verbal and written death threats as well as break-ins at Henson’s home and office. There were suspicions that individuals were following Henson’s then-girlfriend and a board member and the computer network at MCFD was hacked.
“At one point, it was stated where to hide on my property, behind what tree to get a clear headshot. I take those kinds of threats very seriously, but I also don’t think that 99.9 percent of our personnel, either volunteer or career, are those kind of people or would have done that,” Henson said.
Despite his stated inclination to believe the best of the district’s employees, in fall 2009, he asked for and received permission from board members of the Willamette Valley Fire and Rescue Authority and the Marion County Fire Board to carry a concealed weapon on duty.
About four months after the start of the most contentious period, MCFD hired communications experts to facilitate trainings that, it was hoped, would comb down the bristled fur on the backs of both Henson and district employees.
“I needed to make some changes in my personnel communication skills as a leader. I have done that and continue to do that in different ways, shapes and sizes. I did not confront issues head-on. We had a culture of avoidance and not dealing with problems. We now deal with issues head-to-head, face-to-face and at the lowest level,” he said.
Henson believed that things were turning a corner in November and December 2010.
“We felt great about where we were. We were dealing with employment issues. Things felt much, much healthier and then the Dec. 31 crash happened and it was an unfortunate opportunity to bring all this stuff back up to the top,” Henson said. Henson was responding to a commercial fire in Brooks from his home when he attempted to pass a westbound vehicle on Brooklake Road as it began to turn left into a business. The trucks collided and Henson’s duty vehicle, a 2010 Chevrolet Tahoe, was rolled at least once.
During the course of the crash investigation, Henson’s possession of a loaded weapon in the car came to light and it has sparked pickets by district employees, a vote of no confidence on the part of Professional Firefighters Association of Marion County, and repeated calls for his resignation.
At a MCFD #1 board meeting in February, Henson was reprimanded for exceeding the permissible speed limit during his response and board members publicly acknowledged and revoked permission to carry the weapon. Henson said the nature of the wreck was one of the few where the weapon might have come loose from its secured position.
More recently concerns have been raised as to whether Henson was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash. The deputy investigating the case said he did not see injuries consistent with seatbelt usage on Henson’s person and the black box in the vehicle that registers various characteristics of the vehicle each time it is driven says the belt was not engaged, but three witnesses at the hospital attested to the presence of bruising consistent with seatbelt use.
Henson said the confusion arose after he was questioned about the accident when he returned home.
“I was asked if I wear my seatbelt 100 percent of the time. I’m not going to swear that I wear it all the time if I’m camping or going down the street to pick up gas. That related to off-duty conduct. When they asked about when I’m in a marked unit my answer was, ‘Yes, I do.’”
Another oddity in the incident was that Henson asked to be drug and alcohol tested upon his arrival at the hospital. During his first two years on duty, Henson had advocated hard for inclusion on drug and alcohol testing in the employee’s contracts, when the accident happened, he said, he wanted to lead by example.
“Drug testing’s primary service is for the benefit of the public first and for the person driving the vehicle second so everyone knows their public servants are not under the influence while on duty,” Henson said.
Given all he’s been through the most surprising thing about Henson is the way he carries himself, there is little hint of fatigue or wear, and a mostly there’s-still-a-job-to-be-done air. For that, he makes no apologies.
“I absolutely believe we’ve been over some rough roads and I believe we’re close to recovery. I’m not going to leave unless the board chooses to end my contract. We’re fixing the department and changing the culture to one of accountability. Change hurts, change is painful, change is uncomfortable and we’re at the latter end of that spectrum. My intention is to build a stronger MCFD1, a stronger Turner Fire, and a stronger WVFRA and to get off subjects like this and focus on the day-to-day aspects of fire service.”