Whiteville mayor: Citizens shouldn't worry about firefighters quitting

Whiteville mayor: Citizens shouldn't worry about firefighters quitting

Whiteville, TN (WMC) - A meeting intended to result in disciplinary action of two Whiteville firefighters ended with many volunteer firefighters walking away from the department.

Whiteville Mayor Aubrey Phillips said there were some issues with purchasing turnout gear and radios within the department. He said he called two of his firefighters in for a meeting and was intending to write them up Monday morning.

However, that's not how it ended.

"The Board (of Aldermen) voted unanimously for me to ask for their resignations," Phillips said. "I called them in to write them up and things just blew up."

Phillips said he was planning on just writing the firefighters up and was not seeking resignations of anyone.

Phillips called Fire Chief Ernie Burkeen into a meeting, along with volunteer firefighter Jonathan Swarey, to discuss the recent purchase of turnout gear that was not authorized.

Swarey told WBBJ that the meeting became 'heated' and that since Phillips took office it has been 'drama filled.'

However, Phillips said the issue came as a result of fire officials' ordered turnout gear after a grant had been approved and the city had not yet received bids for the equipment.

"If it's over $4,000 we have to get a bid," Phillips said. "They took it upon themselves to go out and buy it anyway."

Phillips said he told fire officials to cancel the order and the turnout gear would be purchased using the grant money and after bids were received. He said the order was never canceled and the city started receiving the equipment. Phillips said he was able to negotiate with the company to accept all the equipment back except the boots.

"We said, 'OK, we'll pay for the boots,'" Phillips said.

Swarey told WBBJ that he believed Phillips thought he was bluffing when he said he was going to leave the department.

"I didn't care if he was bluffing or not. What's right is right," Phillips said.

There was also a dispute over the purchase of new radios, which Phillips said was not authorized and were distributed without consideration of the ones who were in the greater need of a new radio.

Phillips also contested the idea that Swarey was assistant fire chief.

"He's going around calling himself assistant fire chief, but he's not the assistant chief. I guess he's the assistant to the assistant chief," Phillips said.

Swarey told WBBJ that after he left the department he thought approximately 15-20 of the other firefighters would leave. Many of them have left, but Phillips said that shouldn't concern the citizens of Whiteville.

"I have had people contact me wanting to come back to the fire department now that he [Swarey] is gone," Phillips said. "I have about eight or nine [firefighters] left and I have two others wanting to come back."

Phillips said Swarey was a trained first responder, but he is already working to ensure no resident is put at risk because of that.

"We've got a paramedic about to come on board," Phillips said. "The citizens don't need to be concerned."

Phillips said the meeting that sparked the firefighters to quit was not a major ordeal.

"It wasn't that big of a deal. They were just going to get written up," Phillips said. "But I've already talked to the county mayor and to the mayor-elect of Bolivar and they said if we need help they will help, so our citizens don't have to worry."

Fire Chief Burkeen did not resign and remains on the fire department as chief.

Copyright 2017 WMC Action News 5. All rights reserved.