Firefighters talk a lot about the bonds they share with their co-workers, and it’s not unusual to hear those relationships described as being “like family.”
In many cases, they actually are family: At the Skyland department alone, 18 employees are related to at least one other employee, according to Deputy Chief Ryan Cole. “We’ve got two husbands and wives. I think two fathers, sons. We’ve got two brothers, I think. We’ve got several cousins.” He estimates that another 25 are related to people serving at other departments.
The coziness of those relationships has recently proved something of a mixed blessing for Skyland Chief Dennis Presley, whose wife, son, daughter and son-in-law are all employed by the department. Following the public comments Weston Hall made at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Aug. 1 meeting about the dangers of nepotism in fire departments, Presley announced he will be retiring on Sunday, Aug. 20.
Rumors and allegations
In February, Mountain Xpress began receiving letters and phone calls from anonymous sources alleging concerns regarding the Skyland department’s management. Then in May, Hall also contacted us, writing in an email, “Skyland Fire and Rescue currently promote a hostile [work] environment.” Hall did not request anonymity and stated that his comments were for the record.
WLOS aired a story in June that looked at the potential for conflicts of interest when dealing with family on the job, but mostly highlighted the tradition of strong family dynamics in the fire service. The story featured the Skyland department along with other local departments.
In looking into Hall’s and others’ concerns, Xpress encountered difficulty in accessing information from the department, which led us to explore the rules for transparency and oversight for nonprofit fire services. That was the starting point for our story “Where there’s smoke…” elsewhere in this issue.
At the county commissioners’ Aug. 1 meeting, Asheville Fire Department firefighter Hall raised concerns about the possible effects of nepotism in fire departments.
“Nepotism breeds corruption and is linked to sexual harassment, discrimination and loss of confidence in the government. It goes against everything Buncombe County stands for in their good practices,” he told commissioners, referencing the county’s personnel policy, which does not allow immediate family to work in a hierarchy within a department.
Hall, who’s running for Black Mountain mayor, usually works in the Asheville portion of the station that his department shares with Skyland Fire and Rescue on Hendersonville Road.
He put the question to commissioners: “You are sexually harassed by the son of the chief of your department, so who do you go to [to] make your complaint? The chief? The board? Firefighters do not complain, not out of loyalty, but out of fear of their job. They are basically gagged by the system.”
Buncombe County, Hall said, supports “an environment of fear” by allowing tax dollars to fund departments that don’t conform to the county’s policy standards. “And I do not speak of simply a captain with a son [who is a] firefighter on a different shift,” he continued. “I consider it to be a chief of a department employing a family in direct supervision at a paid fire department. Skyland Fire Department employs the chief’s wife, daughter, son and son-in-law.”
Hall called on commissioners to intervene on behalf of the public because, as he sees it, the public views the fire service as a public institution and expects the standards of government to be applied. “Obviously, this is [a nongovernmental organization] but an NGO that receives tax dollars from Buncombe County and is perceived to be a government agency by the community,” he told them. “I am a citizen of Buncombe County, and I do not want my tax dollars going to promote such a hostile work environment.”
Immediately after his statement to the commissioners, Hall told Xpress that “The simplest thing would be for Chief Presley to step down, and/or have his wife, his daughter, his son and his son-in-law go to another department if he wants to stay in that position.”
Deputy Chief Cole agrees that family members shouldn’t be making pay and hiring decisions for relatives, but he says that those lines haven’t been crossed at the Skyland station on behalf of the Presley family.
“We went through all this stuff with WLOS,” he explains. “For us, the fire chief is managed by the board. His wife is the office manager. She reports directly to the board of directors. So they don’t report to each other.”
The chief, for his part, denies any wrongdoing. He points out that Skyland’s policies don’t prohibit working with family members. “Neither does [any] other [nonprofit] fire department in the county or state,” he says.
Local government, on the other hand, does have policies that control family interactions in the workplace. Asheville Fire Department doesn’t allow family members to work in the same sections or on the same shifts. And the county doesn’t allow department heads to hire family members. The elected positions of Buncombe County register of deeds and sheriff can hire relatives with the approval of the Board of Commissioners, as allowed by state law. There’s a similar allowance for the county manager.
Contacted for comment the day after Hall’s public complaint, Presley seemed more relaxed than during previous conversations with Xpress. “Today I feel like a million pounds lifted off me,” he said after revealing his decision to retire, which he said he’d been contemplating for some time.
Presley also commented that criticism of his family’s employment situation had been distressing. “Had I known it would be this bad, I would not have gotten back in it,” he said. Originally hired in the 1990s to lead the Skyland department, Presley had previously retired to lead the launch of the county’s fire training facility. He returned to Skyland in 2013.
At the annual meeting of the Skyland department’s board in July, three longtime board members were replaced by new directors. Presley said the new members were nominated from the floor at the meeting, which drew many more attendees than normal. “They showed up and voted those three people off and replaced them with the ones they wanted,” he explained, also noting that the new board members are two former Skyland employees and an AFD firefighter who works at the shared station.
The chief’s life seems poised to become less complicated when he retires. He’ll continue to volunteer with Skyland, but Presley said he’s been eager to devote more time to a joint farming venture with his son Chad Presley for some time. Chad manages a herd of 70 black angus cattle in addition to his work as an emergency medical technician. The younger Presley and the rest of the family plan to remain on staff at Skyland, according to Presley.
The board of directors for the organization held an emergency meeting on Aug. 3. Board President Tony Huntsinger reported that all directors attended and voted unanimously to name Cole the next chief.
Meanwhile, Hall says he’s pleased with Chief Presley’s decision. “He has had a great career and deserves to be honored for his service to his family, community, the citizens of Buncombe County and to the great state of North Carolina,” Hall says. “He has served well, and I look forward to the next chapter in Skyland’s history.”