Conflicts Threaten to Divide Southern Door Fire Department

“And so there is a clash: between generations, between new enthusiasm and priceless experience. And personalities are not easy to change. I truly believe everyone wants to do their best to serve the community, but dividing is not the answer.” 

— Southern Door Fire Department Fire Chief Rich Olson

No one in the room expressed an interest in splitting apart the Southern Door Fire Department, even though that’s what drew a large crowd to the Nasewaupee Town Hall last week for a special town board meeting.

The item on the agenda was “Withdrawal from the Southern Door Fire Department.” Town Board Chair Steve Sullivan said he called the meeting to try to air some of the department’s issues. The department of 45 volunteer firefighters covers the towns of Clay Banks, Forestville and Nasewaupee and the Village of Forestville. Nasewaupee pays about two-thirds of the department’s budget and owns the land beneath its north station. 

The reason for the potential withdrawal is a long-standing internal conflict that doesn’t appear to be healing. Nasewaupee considered leaving the department four years ago. At that time, the town had considered, but did not reach, an agreement with the Sturgeon Bay Fire Department.

The Southern Door Fire Department has a north station in Nasewaupee and a south station in Forestville. There’s a divide between those two stations, and also between generations. Fire Chief Rich Olson summed it up during the Aug. 5 meeting, which filled the room. 

“On one side, a group of younger firemen has become frustrated to the point of quitting and starting an independent department,” Olson said. “They feel they are not being heard, face double standards and are not treated equally at the north station.”

On the other side is a group of veteran firefighters, led by a founding member of the department, Randy Massart, who served as the department’s chief from 1983 to 1993, and is currently the assistant fire chief. Olson said Massart has probably poured so many hours of his life into caring for and loving the department because he helped to start it from nothing. 

“And so there is a clash: between generations, between new enthusiasm and priceless experience,” Olson said. “And personalities are not easy to change. I truly believe everyone wants to do their best to serve the community, but dividing is not the answer.”

One newer area of conflict surrounds the department’s vehicle committee, which is doing research to purchase a pumper truck that could cost about $700,000. There is no set purchase date for the truck, but some have asked – and asked again during the Aug. 5 meeting – whether they could add some north-station people to that committee, given that the truck would be housed there. 

Olson said four of the committee’s six members didn’t want anyone else added, but in the interest of inclusivity and trying to mend, he said he’d recommend adding members.

“There may be members who are going to leave because of that decision,” he said.

After the meeting, Olson said he intends to move the department forward in a positive direction. That includes adding people to the vehicle committee, but there would be conditions. 

“The vehicle committee has put in an extensive amount of work already, and the people that come on cannot and should not expect to make big changes,” he said.

Olson applied for the chief’s position after Dave “Moose” Vandertie stepped down for health reasons. Olson was selected May 26 over three other internal candidates. He has served the department for 30 years, and as an EMR (emergency medical response) professional for 27 years. He was the department’s EMR crew chief before being tapped for the department’s top position, and he has been a captain for the past 17 years.

The day after Olson was picked for the job, he gave a video interview that the department posted on its Facebook page. In that interview, Olson acknowledged the internal conflict and said why it’s happening and what needs to happen to cure it.

“It’s because we’re all strong people, and we think we’re right, and it has to go our way,” he said. “Sometimes we aren’t right, and the middle is the best place to be. We have to learn to give a little. That’s true in our departments; it’s true in our country; it’s true in our world.”

A quorum of Nasewaupee Town Board members was expected to be present at the Southern Door Fire Board’s Aug. 11 meeting, after the deadline for this issue of the paper.