Former Hall County Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong spoke with AccessWDUN this week in the wake of his sudden resignation from the department at the end of August.
Armstrong, who had served as Chief of the department for five years, said his resignation came after he learned that a vote of no confidence toward him had circulated within the department.
“I didn’t want my reputation drove through the mud with a vote of no confidence, especially after everything that we had accomplished for the organization and for the members of the fire department in the last five years,” Armstrong said. “So I requested a meeting with county administration, I told them about the vote of no confidence, I told them I had heard about it, it came from a good source. I had no idea how many signatures were on it.”
Armstrong said he then submitted his resignation as an attempt to prevent a “black eye for the department,” which he said “has a history of a lot of that.”
Armstrong’s resignation was effective August 29, while the resignation of Deputy Chief Tim Woodward came just a day before on August 28.
A relationship within the department
Armstrong told AccessWDUN he believed the vote of no confidence was circulated due to the way in which he handled a relationship between Woodward and a Division Chief with the department.
“A lot of the firefighters were under the impression that I did not take any action against the deputy chief and the division chief that were having a relationship together, which was absolutely not true,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said he reported the relationship to the county's Human Resources department as soon as he found out about it.
“We started having conversations about what do we do with this,” Armstrong said. “The county policy is very clear. The county policy says if people … have a relationship and they’re in the same line of supervision, they’re required to report it so we can move one person out of that line of supervision.”
Armstrong said he moved the division chief into a vacant position in the training division, which removed her from the line of supervision she was previously in. Woodward was given a 30-day suspension, and the division chief was given a two-week suspension for not reporting their relationship, according to Armstrong. He said Hall County Administration and Human Resources were both in support of the decisions.
AccessWDUN has filed an Open Records Request with Hall County Government to verify Armstrong’s statements pertaining to the division chief’s position change, along with the two suspensions. The county had not responded to the request as of Thursday afternoon.
Additionally, AccessWDUN has attempted to obtain documents pertaining to the investigation into the relationship but was told by county records staff that the investigation was still underway and the documents could not yet be released under Georgia law.
Overtime in the department
Aside from Armstrong’s handling of the relationship between Woodward and the division chief, Armstrong said he believed the secondary reason behind the vote of no confidence pertained to overtime within the department.
“They do work a lot of overtime, I don’t like how much overtime they have to work,” Armstrong said. “When we’re short personnel, we hold overtime to make sure that we maintain our level of service … some of them volunteer the overtime, and all of them have to pick two days a month. Now, this is a process that the firefighters chose, not the overtime process we had in place initially.”
Armstrong said he believed there were no real solutions to avoid overtime within the department, aside from shutting down fire trucks, which he said was “not even an option.”
“I went to all the stations multiple times, I used to do it about once a quarter - I would meet with the entire department over a three-day period,” Armstrong said. “And we talked about some of the things that we were doing to reduce overtime, and I believe it just wasn’t enough for them.”
Surprise at the vote of no confidence
Armstrong told AccessWDUN he was surprised when he first learned about the vote of no confidence.
“I created what’s called a Labor Management Committee,” Armstrong said. “It allows the firefighters to pick representatives from each of the three shifts. So they pick three representatives from each shift, and once a month they would send us an agenda and they would come sit with myself and the command staff and we would talk about issues and get them resolved. So, for me to hear that there was a letter of no confidence without anybody asking me or coming to me and talking to me was surprising to me.”
Additionally, Armstrong described the vote of no confidence as “heartbreaking.”
“For five years, I did nothing but fight for those men and women,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said he believed the majority of personnel within Hall County Fire Rescue were “exceptional,” but some did not like the direction of the department.
“They’re dedicated to the community, they’re dedicated to the organization, and they’re dedicated to the service that they provide,” Armstrong said. “There are some people in that organization that, no matter what you do, you’re not going to make them happy … I’ve said this for five years to the firefighters: the good ones are afraid to speak up against the outspoken minority that I believe creates the internal turmoil.”
The department also had issues with internal bullying and hostility, according to Armstrong.
“That was one of the things I was brought in to clean up, and probably one of the things I failed at, looking at it now,” Armstrong said.
The weeks following
Armstrong moved back to Florida following his resignation, which he said was where he grew up.
“I’m not done working, I still have a lot of gas in the tank, I have a lot to offer,” Armstrong said. “I’m looking for an organization, probably not the fire service, I’ll probably do some consulting work or something along those lines … I’m here with my family where I should be and enjoying the sunshine, and just kind of moving on with life and hoping the best for the firefighters I left behind.”