Story last updated at 3:16 p.m. Thursday, October 3, 2002

Dissent leads to mass volunteer resignations
by Carey James
Staff Writer

Eight members of the Anchor Point Volunteer Fire Department, including five highly trained medics, resigned from the department Tuesday night after they say complaints about a department staff member were ignored.

While the exiting members will leave a gap in the department, remaining members say they are stepping up their commitment to the department to make sure all emergency calls are covered.

According to former emergency medical technician III and EMS Chief Helen Doner, one of those who resigned, the dispute centered around the actions of Ron Wilhoit, a three-year volunteer with the department who was recently hired as the department administrator after several months serving in the position temporarily.

Doner, who has been a medic with the department for more than 20 years, said while she couldn't go into specifics of the incident because of confidentiality issues, the controversy centered around the importance of professionalism on the ambulance. Doner said as EMS chief, she had a responsibility to deal with such issues. But when Wilhoit refused to respond to her requests, she felt obligated to have him step down as a medic. As a result, Wilhoit could not respond on medical calls.

According to Doner, the department administration eventually decided it wanted Wilhoit to be able to respond to medic calls and gave her a choice: reinstate Wilhoit or step down as EMS chief. Doner stepped down.

"I told them I had to stand up for what was right, even if it meant that I couldn't be chief," she said. "They wanted him on the ambulance more than they wanted professionalism."

Wilhoit, who was unanimously recommended for hire by the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Service Area last month, said the allegations are unfounded.

"I believe that composure (on medical calls) is very important. How you treat a patient, bystanders and medics is important," he said.

According to Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, he accepted the service area board's recommendation to hire Wilhoit after receiving both positive and negative comments about the candidate.

Bagley said since Wilhoit is on a six-month probationary period in his job, he believes there will be plenty of time to respond to future issues, if they come up.

"It's amazing how political it's gotten," Bagley said. "We've talked to him about some of this stuff, and from those discussions, we feel comfortable about hiring him."

Service area board members Robin Proctor and Jim Pastro did not return phone calls regarding this subject.

Wilhoit said more important than who is right in what he calls a personality conflict is that the public understand that when they call 911, Anchor Point medics will respond.

Last weekend, he said, the department had double calls twice and were able to respond to all the calls with the same level of service it had before.

"I don't see this impacting the department," he said. "Other people are stepping up to fill the void. I think the quality of service has never been this high."

Wilhoit said the department still has four actively responding EMT IIIs, as well as a host of lower-level medics, many of whom are interested in training to become EMT IIIs.

EMT IIIs can provide a higher level of care for patients suffering cardiac problems, but even if an EMT III is not available, the department can still transport a patient to the hospital.

If, however, responders do not feel comfortable handling a medical situation, or there aren't enough responders to handle a call, the Anchor Point department can call on the Homer Volunteer Fire Department for assistance. If the Homer department responds, however, patients will be charged for the ride to the hospital.

"That should not keep them from calling 911," Proctor said. "I just think people should know that they will be charged (if Homer medics respond)."

Proctor said she and others who have resigned are sad to have left their volunteer posts, and hope to find other ways to volunteer in the community.

"It hurts. I love serving my community," she said. "I have not (volunteered) for 21 years to back out for frivolous reasons."

Carey James can be reached at cjames@homernews.com.

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