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Workplace investigation leads to barring former fire chief for life

Northern Alberta town spent $35k to investigate sitting councillor for actions prior to his election.

ATHABASCA — There were several motions made after an unusually long in-camera meeting by Athabasca County council July 21 but only one which was shocking. 

Mixed in among the motion to accept Frank Coutney as the interim CAO (Chief Administrative Officer) and five other motions was one made by Coun. Ashtin Anderson following the summary in a workplace investigation which cost taxpayers about $35,000 because administration can’t investigate a sitting councillor regardless of when the alleged events occurred. 

“Moved by Councillor Anderson that Gary Cromwell be prohibited from being involved in any and all operations associated with any Athabasca County Fire Departments.” 

The motion passed by a vote of 7-2. 

When asked for clarification on July 28, reeve Brian Hall replied in an e-mail July 29 he was unable to explain what was behind the motion arising from the workplace investigation at that moment. 

“It is a requirement that the content of ‘closed session’ items remain confidential until made public, so the context that I am presently able to share is limited to what is recorded in the minutes,” said Hall. 

“The important contribution of our volunteer emergency services crews is deeply valued. Unfortunately, a discussion that consumed most of the day is not easily conveyed in the few motions that resulted. I hope that everyone (can) trust the council to do our job, to have the best interests of the municipality in mind and will respect the legal constraints on what we are presently able to communicate regarding item 3.2 on the July 21 agenda.” 

It was the morning of Aug. 8 when the Sage Analytics report was released online with three parts; a summary of findings between Trans-Care, the parent company for the contracted services of Highway 63 Rescue (H63R), and Gary Cromwell, a summary of findings between H63R and Gary Cromwell, and Wandering River Fire Department (WRFD) operational observations. 

To be clear, the allegations were mostly made against Cromwell as part of his role as WRFD chief, which he resigned from in March of this year. 

Trans-Care, which is based in Langham, Sask., submitted a workplace complaint to Athabasca County administration in December 2021 and during the investigation it was found Cromwell was financially motivated on behalf of the department to arrive first on scene and noted Athabasca County has “weak” oversight of the monies collected by fire departments which are paid per call out. 

Where H63R is paid a flat rate per month, fire departments get paid by how many people and how much equipment arrives on scene. Cromwell was accused of bringing everything and everyone to bump up billing costs and trying to beat H63R to the scenes to assume control to ensure payment. 

“(Cromwell), serving in the Fire Chief role, inflamed the WRFD member concerns, rather than respect and champion the county direction of maintaining complementary emergency services for Highway 63,” the report said. 

The report also said he acted “in a somewhat stealthy, self-directed manner … to show that the H63R service was redundant and unnecessary.” 

It was noted Cromwell did not seem to understand and perpetuated the false claim the money paid to the H63R service would go to the WRFD if H63R no longer existed. 

“The respondent engaged in deviant work behaviour where the WRFD operations were rogue and out of step with the level of service expectations by Athabasca County council.” 

Cromwell was also accused of questioning the qualifications of the H63R personnel which was cited as “an intimidation tactic” in the report and “he displayed poor boundaries by inserting himself into the Regional Fire Chief’s duties by searching for this personal information and sharing it with others, without permission and in a condescending manner.” 

Trans-Care also alleged Cromwell “was abrasive and rude on calls, argumentative, and that he made weird/vulgar statements to female patients on scene.” 

The investigation supported the claim. 

“Sage (Analytics) finds that on the balance of probabilities, (Trans-Care's) allegations are likely to be correct,” the report said. “(Cromwell’s) ‘joking around’ comments were seen as unprofessional and damaging to the workplace and patient safety.” 

Overall, the report stated, “key county relationships were damaged under Mr. Cromwell’s leadership, specifically impacting WRFD members and H63R personnel/Trans-Care, which held an important rescue service contract for the county.” 

“More recent examples and comments showed that Mr. Cromwell fostered division, displayed workplace sabotage, engaged in deviant workplace behaviour, aggression, suspicion, and criticism of H63R personnel and Trans-Care.” 

The separate complaint submitted by H63R, based in Wandering River, also in December 2021, alleged Cromwell stood down resources, made crude remarks, transported a patient in his company vehicle, a tow truck, interfered in the deployment of other fire departments, interfered with communications when not on scene and more. 

In the summary of findings, the report said, “The findings show a pattern of unacceptable work behaviour displayed by the respondent, Gary Cromwell. There are several examples of compromised safety for himself and others, particularly while serving in the senior emergency services role as WRFD Fire Chief. This placed individuals, the public, and the county at large at risk.” 

The report also said the lines were blurred between Cromwell’s personal employment as a tow truck operator and his volunteer fire chief role. 

“Defiance of authority was noted where direction from county officials to close the WRFD during asbestos abatement was not respected. (Cromwell) also insisted that he could pass a respirator fit test without being clean shaven.” 

Finally, the third report on the WRFD operational findings was an extra report which was presented with additional information Sage Analytics gathered in interviews and from observation which did not fit the scope of the investigation but were deemed warranted to pass along to Athabasca County. 

Only one of the observations was specific to Cromwell, filling out a report when he wasn’t at the scene, and most dealt with issues of working with H63R, needing to work collaboratively with other agencies, ensuring qualifications and training align with Athabasca County policy, and better governance of social media. 

Athabasca County has seven fire departments and associated with most of the departments are “friends of” groups and both the fire department and “friends of” groups need to represent Athabasca County in a professional manner. 

Other motions arising from the July 21 meeting were to develop a merit-based program with a two-year term limit for fire chiefs starting in 2023, and “a full financial review of all monies under the Athabasca County Fire Departments control, including financial reports of associated non-profit societies.” 

Cromwell did not respond to a request for comment before press time. 

[email protected] 

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