Note: The Egg Harbor Fire Commission meeting scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 20 will now be held at the Donald & Carol Kress Pavilion, Great Hall, 7845 Church Street in Egg Harbor. The original meeting location, the Bertschinger Center, was reflected in the print version of this article.
Last week, we reported on the unrest at the Egg Harbor Fire Department as new Fire Chief Andy Staats, who was appointed July 1, wrestled with five leaves of absence within his department.
Staats said then that privacy concerns related to the personnel issues meant he couldn’t reveal the names of those requesting leaves. Since then, those firefighters and emergency medical responders (EMRs) have decided to tell their side of the story.
Two of the five, Bobby and Jackie Mueller, took a three-month leave of absence for personal reasons. The other three – Dan Kiehnau, Dustin Kiehnau and Terry Havel – requested six months’ leave of absence to register their disapproval over the appointment of Staats as fire chief, they said.
Staats confirmed the requested leaves for last week’s story and said he had “zero resignations.” But Nick Hutchins, a dual firefighter and EMR, did resign from his decade-long membership over Staats’ appointment.
“When I found out he would be the chief, I turned in a letter of resignation to [former Fire Chief Steve] Schopf,” Hutchins said.
Although it’s true that Hutchins officially resigned to Schopf rather than to Staats, it was the Egg Harbor Fire Commission’s choice of Staats that caused Hutchins’ resignation.
“I made it clear I was resigning on July 1,” Hutchins said. “That was the reason for the resignation.”
The six-month period for the requested leaves coincides with the new chief’s probationary period.
“If the commission said, ‘We made a mistake’ and hired somebody qualified, we’d be back,” Dan Kiehnau said. “Not only that, but others would.”
Havel, too, said he “could pull back 10 guys in one call” if Staats were no longer in the leadership position.
“If they’re both still there in six months, I’m done,” Havel said.
The “both” Havel referred to are Staats and his wife, Ashley. Staats promoted Ashley to captain and EMS crew chief and his brother, Jason Staats, to the position of assistant chief. Those internal changes only underscored for Dan Kiehnau; his son, Dustin; and Havel their lack of confidence in Staats’ leadership skills.
“There is so much turmoil, disrespect, trust issues and nepotism going on at this point,” Havel said in his leave-of-absence letter to the Fire Commission. “With Andy appointing his brother to assistant chief and wife to EMR crew chief and captain, how does one bring up interdepartmental issues going forward if someone were to have a problem with one of them and expect it to be addressed?”
Staats said for last week’s story that he knew that the appointment of his wife, a 10-year member of the department, would not be well received by all members of the department. She had been one of five candidates to apply for the chief’s position. Staats said he promoted her based on her continual training and her experience as a paramedic with Door County Emergency Services.
The Egg Harbor Fire Commission, which oversees operations for the fire department that serves both the Village and Town of Egg Harbor, ratified Staats’ decisions.
Staats offered additional insight into his selection criteria when he appeared before the Egg Harbor Village Board of Trustees during its Aug. 10 evening meeting. He told the trustees that he made those decisions based not “just on length of service,” but on training, knowledge and “support of myself as well.”
The basis for those decisions doesn’t change the outcome for those who believe it’s a problem to have all family members at the top of the organization.
“When you have number one, two and three as family members, how can you discipline that?” Dan Kiehnau asked.
Havel had also been one of the five candidates who applied for the chief position that was given to Staats. A 22-year member of the Egg Harbor Fire Department, Havel had been serving as a lieutenant when he requested his leave. He also serves on the Ephraim Fire Department, currently as assistant chief. He said they do not have the issues in the Ephraim department that exist within Egg Harbor.
“I’ve been fighting this two years,” he said. “I’m basically tired of it.”
Dan Kiehnau said he had tried during the past year to get the Fire Commission and former fire chief to address the internal personnel issues that were undermining the department, but “it was brushed under the rug.” He said the Staatses were the center of the ongoing tension and animosity.
“The lying and backstabbing in this department has gone on for over a year now,” Dan Kiehnau wrote in his leave-of-absence letter to the Fire Commission. “This department can no longer function as a united core with any trust or respect. The Fire Commission was aware of this for a long time and failed to recognize or do anything about it. The members of this commission were contacted several times with no response. Then they failed the town and village again by appointing a person that was originally part of the mistrust in the department as our chief.”
Staats had been assistant chief for several years under Schopf, who retired June 30. Schopf said he did not feel comfortable commenting on the situation. Mark Bogenschutz, a captain within the department, said he did not want to comment when the Fire Commission would be taking up the issue. Justin MacDonald, a current lieutenant within the department – another of the five applicants for the fire chief role, and currently the Ephraim fire chief – did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Dustin Kiehnau, a 10-year member of the fire department, said the tension within the department had ruined what had been a positive experience for him.
“I’m doing a good thing; I’m having fun,” he said. “We had fun trying to help. Now it’s turned into a big mess.”
He said he had been willing to give Staats a chance when he was first appointed.
“He’s the chief; he can restructure things,” Dustin Kiehnau said. “It’s chaotic, and there’s no reason.”
That was before Staats’ leadership appointments.
“Promoting [Ashley Staats] to captain and putting her in the job my dad has had and been respected for is just absurd,” he said.
Dan Kiehnau had served as the EMS crew chief for the past 19 years, before Staats replaced him with Ashley Staats.
“She got promoted over two lieutenants that had been on the department for a great number of years and given my job as the crew chief,” Dan Kiehnau said. “I would have been fine with that if they didn’t like the way I was running things.”
He said he also would have been fine with it if it had been given to someone who deserved it.
“But he took it away and gave it to someone who has caused the biggest problem with the department,” he said.
It was difficult to extract specific actions regarding the conduct that has created the lack of trust and respect for Andy Staats and Ashley Staats. It was clear, however, that personality conflicts have caused tension for a long time – something Dan Kiehnau acknowledged. That tension and distrust then work against firefighters who are expected to perform together under duress during fires, accidents and medical emergencies, where many things could go wrong at any second.
“I’m not going into a fire with someone I don’t trust,” Dan Kiehnau said.
Insight from a person who is still a member of the department came from April Moeller, Dan’s daughter and Dustin’s sister. Moeller did not ask for a leave of absence from her role as an EMR, she said, because she “did not want to have to walk away to make a point. I want to see how this plays out. I would love the commission to open their eyes and see this is not a supported change by the members of the department that are very active members of the department.”
Moeller said she’s never had an issue with the Staatses personally, but she said her observation is that others did. She said she witnessed a lack of skills required to lead that ended up pushing people aside who had a lot to give.
“I have young friends who want to get involved, and right now, I wouldn’t recommend it,” she said. “We want to bring on the next generation, but not to be talked down to or given a hard time. This is not the type of job that you need to worry about who’s got your back.”
The Kiehnaus were active responders to pages with a response rate of 95-98 percent, by their estimate. Their absence leaves a hole within the department and creates a void for them personally. They all said in their own way that being a member of a local, volunteer fire department was not a temporary role someone fills – it was a way of life.
“I’m not happy about it at all,” Dan Kiehnau said. “In my letter, I said this is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do because I’ve always been in public service. I went into the Air Force and then came back up here and got into the EMS service and fire service. For 25 years now, it’s always been about the public and public safety.”