A longtime Spokane Valley fire marshal was demoted this month amid several concerns, including a missing report in a high-profile case in which a father killed his 11-year-old son and torched their home.
The Spokane Valley Civil Service Commission ruled early Wednesday that Paul Chase’s demotion was appropriate, and it noted that his lack of leadership and managerial abilities were also of concern.
Chase remains employed by the department as a deputy fire marshal. Meanwhile, Kevin Miller, a former deputy fire marshal, has been promoted to provisional fire marshal.
Chase can appeal the civil service commissioner’s decision in Spokane County Superior Court.
“No decision has been made at this time whether or not Mr. Chase is going to appeal,” Chase’s attorney Steve Crumb said Wednesday. However, “there are a number of appealable issues.” Crumb did not elaborate on what those issues are.
Chase, who held the fire marshal position for 12 years, was notified of the demotion in a letter from the Spokane Valley Fire Department’s board of commissioners dated June 14. The notification followed a six-month probationary period in which Chase had been given an opportunity to correct problems cited by his superiors.
The letter stated that the decision was based on “multiple official records pertaining to fire investigation reports covering several years that are either missing, inaccurate or incomplete,” and his “lack of leadership and overall direction in the fire prevention bureau.” It continued to say “these missing reports are a potential liability.” It was signed by board chairman Joe Dawson.
“I think it was the right decision,” Dawson said of the civil commissioners’ ruling. This was a case where someone may have been put in a position “that he wasn’t qualified for.”
In a review of suspicious fire investigation reports going back to February 2000, officials found that 93 reports were either incomplete or missing. Many of them were missing police reports, which are required by Washington state law to be included in suspicious fire investigations. Thirty-nine of the missing or incomplete reports were assigned directly to Chase. However, as fire marshal he oversaw all suspicious fire investigations during that time.
The most recent blaze in which there was no hard file, written fire report or police report was regarding the March 13 Opportunity Baptist Church arson. On that same night, five other arson fires were sparked in the Valley.
Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson said the discovery of the missing and incomplete reports prompted officials to look at the Feb. 10, 1999, murder and arson case in which 11-year-old Christopher Wood was strangled, his body dumped in a Stevens County ditch and the family’s Newman Lake home torched. The boy’s father, Robert Wood, was charged with murder and arson in the case. He hanged himself in Spokane County Jail before going to trial.
“Missing reports are a potential liability,” Thompson said at Tuesday’s hearing, citing the Wood case in particular.
Crumb argued his client’s demotion wasn’t justified because it was based on Thompson’s dislike of Chase’s management style. He also claimed the chief ordered the demotion, rather than allowing the Valley fire commissioners to make their own decision, and he implied that others in the department were out to get his client.
In addition to the problems with fire investigation reports, Dawson’s June 14 letter specified one of the main deficiencies in Chase’s leadership as not penning a contract with the three cities in Valley Fire’s coverage area that clearly identified roles, responsibilities and fees.
“This issue and many others should have been completed,” Dawson said in the letter, referring to the six-month probationary period given to Chase.
Thompson acknowledged the turmoil over Chase’s demotion has been uncomfortable for some of the firefighters at the department, but “we identified the problem, dealt with it and we’re going to move on.”
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