‘Demand an answer’: Amid mass firefighter resignation, Stanley town officials say little

While town officials put out a statement about the restructuring, they didn’t answer numerous other questions from WBTV on Wednesday.
In the town’s statement, they attributed the restructuring to funding and an increase in response areas.
Published: Nov. 15, 2023 at 5:16 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 15, 2023 at 5:22 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - It was around 10 p.m. on Monday night when Stanley assistant fire chief Michael Hullett sent out a group text to his firefighters.

His and chief Eric Wither’s roles had been eliminated in a department restructuring, he told them. That night, the town had voted to create a new full-time role - and then immediately hired an interim chief, listed on their webpage as Gary Hilton.

The next morning, firefighters started making the trip to the department to give back their gear. Pictures shared with WBTV show between nine and 10 piles of gear on the floor inside; by mid-day Wednesday, one resigned firefighter shared a list of about 25 names of volunteer and part-time firefighters that had quit.

Town officials, however, had a different story.

“There have been several part time employees with the Stanley Fire Department that have given their verbal resignation since this public safety restructuring was implemented,” Mayor Steven Denton said in an email. “However, according to our interim Fire Chief, we still have over 20 employees still on the Fire Department’s roster and are expecting to receive 10 applications for employment with the Stanley Fire Department this week.”

Michael Russell, a former part-time Stanley firefighter of three years, didn’t mince words in his response.

“It’s lies, 100% lies,” Russell told WBTV. “I can pull up the former roster that we had and there’s 32 people on that roster. I know for a fact that right now 23 part-time employees have quit of that 32. That leaves you nine.”

Mayor Denton didn’t provide an interview. Town manager Heath Jenkins didn’t respond to multiple emails and questions throughout the day on Wednesday. Police chief and now-public safety director Derek Summey did call WBTV, but said he didn’t have time for an on-camera interview.

“We have no break in fire service,” Summey said with emphasis on the phone.

Mutual aid agreements with other fire departments ensure that someone would still be available to answer fire calls, and the town was not in danger, he said.

But no town official agreed to answer questions on camera.

While town officials put out a lengthy statement about the restructuring, it doesn’t answer why neither the fire chief nor assistant chief were made aware of the restructuring vote beforehand, or given the opportunity to be considered for the interim role.

Sources told WBTV that Chief Withers hadn’t even been able to review his own notice before he was locked out of his account; on Wednesday, town officials refused to answer when they had disabled or locked the accounts.

Eric Withers’ notice, Mayor Denton said, was sent to his work email address at 7:36 p.m on Monday night. Sources say he never saw it before being locked out of the account.

Firefighters and many in the town, meanwhile, have been left angry at the lack of transparency and with two beloved leaders sidelined. Hullett was a recipient just a few months ago of North Carolina’s Firefighter of the Year award, Russell pointed out.

“The two guys they terminated were more than fully qualified to take over that role but neither one of them was afforded even the opportunity to try for that position,” Russell said.

In the town’s statement, they attributed the restructuring to funding and an increase in response areas.

“This new model will ensure Stanley and its citizens are the number one priority, by having a full-time department head that will work alongside the other department heads, including public works, finance, planning, police, recreation, and utility billing,” the statement read.

Firefighters were told they could reapply for their jobs after the restructuring. Six-month-tenured volunteer Jon Dancoff, however, has had enough of the town department that inspired him to pursue a full-time career in the industry.

“Growing up here in Stanley, hearing the fire whistles, I would get my parents to take me to the fire trucks,” he said.

Now, he has resigned and joins the town in pushing for answers.

“I feel like the citizens of Stanley, the citizens of the town of Stanley, need to ask why. And not just ask why but demand an answer and figure out where and why this is all happening,” Dancoff said.

“That’s what I’ve been asking for: just be completely transparent,” Russell said. “Tell us why you let ‘em go.”