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Effectiveness, training of Jefferson County STAR team questioned by former members

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Complaints about safety and training levels have led a few former members of the Jefferson County Special Tactics and Rescue team to urge the team to immediately go out of service until it can remedy its errors.

However, leadership of the team disagrees with the complaints; Jefferson County Emergency Services Director Joseph D. Plummer called the accusations a “disgruntled employee situation.”

The volunteer team can be called in to assist first responders on the water.

In emails to members of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators obtained by the Times, Dwight L. Evans said issues have arisen since the transition of the team’s commander role last year from Mark A. Knowles to William E. Gould II. Since then, Mr. Evans said, the team has not trained appropriately, which presented problems when it worked with new equipment such as dive computers.

“We felt we needed to know how things worked before we were called out for an emergency,” Mr. Evans wrote. Other issues he cited were the quality of equipment including dive suits, a lack of documented training and low membership.

“There hasn’t been enough training to be able to sufficiently identify risks and benefits on the different calls the team can face,” Mr. Evans wrote. “We cannot remain in service for some calls and not others because we don’t know what the call will be when the pager goes off. The liability this county could face because of the lack of documentation regarding certification of the team members can not be overstated.”

The issues in training led to a meeting in November where Mr. Evans and other team members, including Mr. Gould, agreed to go out of service. Despite the agreement, the deactivation never happened.

Mr. Plummer wrote a mass email at the start of February indicating the team was “alive and well,” and doing some rebuilding.

Mr. Evans, a member of the team for about 10 years, told the legislators he wrote to Mr. Plummer following the email that he would have to resign if the issues weren’t resolved. Mr. Plummer replied to him that he would accept the note as his resignation.

In a phone call with the Times on Monday morning, Mr. Plummer said that Mr. Evans’s accusations were not true, and that the team was fully prepared with its training and had adequate equipment. Part of the rebuilding, Mr. Plummer said, was deciding about the range of swift boat rescue services the team would provide.

Mr. Plummer said team members are allowed to make their own safety assessments.

“If they don’t feel comfortable with the operation at hand, they’re not forced to go,” he said.

Mr. Gould said the team, which he reported now has eight members and a handful preparing to join, went through six training events in 2013 after he took over. In 2014, the team has had three training events, including a cold water response event this month in Clayton with multiple fire departments and the U.S. Coast Guard.

“We’re as up to par as we were a year ago,” he said Monday.

That’s not the case, said William E. Butler, a member with four years’ experience who left the team about two weeks ago. He described the team’s training in the past year as “very haphazard and poorly conducted.” When safety concerns were brought up, Mr. Butler said, they were “brushed aside.” He said Tuesday that the problems were structural for the organization, not the fault of one person.

However, the recent note from Mr. Plummer did not sit well with him.

“To tell everybody you’re good to go and there’s no problem, I think that was extremely bold, and put a lot of people in a bad position,” Mr. Butler said.

Mr. Butler said correcting the team’s problems will require time, new members and possibly starting from scratch.

“It’s going to take time and training and documentation to be safe and effective and to do the job that’s expected and required of them,” he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Evans said his main reason for concern with the team’s status is that fire departments may lose valuable time waiting for an undersized and under-prepared team to arrive.

“I think it’s reckless to pretend that we’re something we’re not, when somebody’s life could be at stake,” he said.

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