Assistant Fire Chief Odermann goes on the offensive at city hearing

2012-08-24T11:50:00Z 2014-08-25T07:34:26Z Assistant Fire Chief Odermann goes on the offensive at city hearingBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The city's assistant fire chief, suspended since May 31 and accused of intimidating subordinates and trying to undermine his boss, fired back for the first time Friday at a due process hearing before city officials.

Assistant Chief Frank Odermann turned the allegations back on Fire Chief Paul Dextras, saying Dextras had engaged in unethical activities that put the safety of firefighters at risk and that Dextras told him "my job is safe as long as Tina's my boss," a reference to Billings City Administrator Tina Volek.

Odermann, charged with working tirelessly to get Dextras fired and committed to "winning at all costs," said "this is not a game for me. There is nothing to win."

If Dextras had been fired, Odermann said, he would have been acting chief until a new one was hired and "I would have inherited the daunting tasks that lie ahead." He said earlier in the meeting that "I can't imagine being placed in that position."

Odermann, who makes $95,513 a year, was suspended with pay after Dextras filed a formal complaint against him. An outside investigator interviewed numerous Fire Department employees and on July 25 submitted a 12-page report of her findings.

Based on that report, Odermann was served with a "notice of possible disciplinary action" on Aug. 1, which reduced the investigator's report to 17 allegations and five conclusions.

At the due process hearing Friday morning in a City Hall conference room, Odermann responded to each allegation and then made a general statement about the investigator's conclusions.

Odermann was accompanied by his attorney, Ken Frazier, of Billings. The hearing was conducted by Assistant City Administrator Bruce McCandless, assisted by City Attorney Brent Brooks and Human Resources supervisor Karla Stanton. Dextras attended the hearing as an observer, as did five firefighters.

When the two-hour hearing concluded, McCandless said he would submit written recommendations to Volek, who would then decide whether to take disciplinary action against Odermann.

He and Volek have vacations scheduled, McCandless said, so "that probably isn't going to happen real quickly," probably within 10 days to two weeks.

Odermann, dressed in his formal uniform, with gold stripes on the sleeves of his jacket, said that during his first couple of years as assistant chief, he acted as an "iron shield" for Dextras, defending him in front of other employees and acting as his sounding board. Dextras was hired in 2008.

As time went on, Odermann said, morale in the department fell so low and complaints about Dextras were so common that he was inevitably drawn into conversations in which he shared his own concerns and frustrations about Dextras.

Odermann said that if he complained about the chief, it was only because Dextras told him, at least weekly for four years, that he trusted no one in the department and that he didn't need to interact with anyone. All he had to do was put in his time and "ride it out for five years," Odermann quoted him as saying.

It was also in that portion of his testimony that Odermann quoted Dextras saying he needed only the support of Volek to keep his job.

Dextras' statements, Odermann said, "were a constant reminder to me that the chief does not trust me or anyone in the department."

All the complaints swirling around the department led to a "team-building" meeting on April 12 of this year. At that meeting, investigator Lynda Brown said in her conclusions, Odermann engaged in "an open denunciation" of Dextras, undermining his authority and damaging departmental operations.

Odermann said Brown failed to understand that the team-building meeting was intended to be "safe," meaning people could say whatever they wanted without fear of reprisals.

That fundamental misunderstanding "set the stage" for all of her other conclusions, Odermann said, and he flatly disagreed with all of them.

Several of the allegations discussed Friday had to do with statements made by department personnel that they were afraid that Odermann would retaliate against them if they disagreed with him or even attempted to make him stop complaining about the chief.

Odermann responded to the charge by playing back a portion of his recorded interview with Brown, conducted as part of the original investigation. In it, Brown said to Odermann, "No one could give me an example of where you retaliated against anybody."

He referred back to her quote in response to several other allegations that dealt with retaliation.

Others told Brown that they feared Odermann would interfere in the promotion process to punish them for disagreeing with him.

Odermann said that in his four years as assistant chief, there has only been one promotion of someone in a position of battalion chief or higher up the ladder. Below the level of battalion chief, he said, promotions follow a rigid schedule based on seniority, and he would have had no role in those promotions.

One of the longer portions of Odermann's testimony Friday centered on Dextras' handling of the introduction of two "quick-response vehicles," or QRVs, to the Fire Department.

Odermann said Dextras began promoting the purchase of QRVs in 2010, and as Dextras' assistant he dutifully supported him. After the City Council voted not to approve buying the vehicles, Odermann said, he delivered testimony that turned the tide, and the council at a later meeting authorized the purchase.

He said he backed the purchase "on the chief's word." Dextras said he had purchased QRVs when he was the fire chief in Arvada, Colo., and that he was convinced they performed well and saved the city money.

Odermann said Dextras also told him that Arvada continued using the QRVs after his departure and was still happy with them.

The more he found out, the more reason he had to doubt what Dextras was telling him, Odermann said. He said he called the fire chief in Arvada and was told that the department took the QRVs out of service within a week of Dextras' departure in 2007.

Odermann said his own experiences with the QRVs in Billings convinced him they are too small to hold enough equipment to ensure firefighters' safety and don't pump water fast enough to fight anything but a brush fire. 

In fact, he said, Arvada converted its QRVs to brush rigs after Dextras left, and that's all they're good for, Odermann said.

"It should never be taken to a structure fire," he said.

Dextras' continuing advocacy of the QRVs, even though they continually needed modifications and retrofits and placed firefighters' in harm's way, was unethical, Odermann said.

There was also some discussion of the "bad bus," a toy-sized ceramic bus that sat on Dextras' desk and into which he placed effigies of employees he was dissatisfied with.

Odermann said he did have concerns about use of the bad bus, but he only brought it up at a meeting that was supposed to be confidential. He said nothing after the meeting, Odermann said, but the whole department was buzzing about the bad bus the next day, and he was repeatedly asked for information about it.

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