Questions arise about past of fired Steese fire chief

Posted: Monday, May 19, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Some of those who knew Nicholas Rich before he came to Alaska say the former Steese Area Volunteer Fire Department chief's claims don't match his true credentials.

California firefighting officials contacted this week by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner said the fire department that Rich said he commanded there doesn't exist and Rich was never considered a colleague. Rich was merely in charge of a private fire brigade, they said.

''Based on the information that we were able to gather, it appears that he is a firefighter wannabe,'' said Carroll Wils, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters Association, the state firefighter's union.

''Firefighters loathe and fear someone like him. Anytime there is a concern about somebody's identity as a firefighter or even as a fire chief as they claim to be, you worry about whether they're trained to do the job.''

The Fairbanks North Star Borough fired Rich last Monday based on allegations that he forged documents filed in an employee's permanent file and misrepresented his supervisory experience.

He served as the head of the Steese Volunteer Fire Department for eight months. Rich was selected by a recruitment board that included two Steese fire service commissioners, a member of the department's board of directors and two borough officials.

He was one of two finalists who traveled to Fairbanks for an interview, said Sallie Stuvek, borough human resources director.

''The process was fine and it's the process that we use for all the hiring we do in the management level,'' Stuvek said. But Stuvek said the process will now undergo review and could be altered.

She refused to comment further about Rich, citing an ongoing investigation.

The California firefighters' union started investigating Rich, and the Adelanto Airport Fire Department he said he commanded for six years, after questions arose about the organization.

''Apparently it is not altogether uncommon for those who want to be a firefighter to set up on their own private land, get themselves a fire truck, get themselves a bunch of people together and call themselves a fire department,'' Wils said.

John Becker, fire department chief at Victorville, Calif., said Rich was no more than a man who talked big about providing fire protection for what was essentially a private dirt runway with a few residences scattered around it.

''They bought themselves a fire truck and they declared that they were the Adelanto Airport Fire Department,'' Becker said.

Rich claimed his fire department was consolidated into the San Bernardino County Fire Department when it took over the contract for the city in 1999. Not so, said Terry Smith, one of the two assistant fire chiefs at the county department that has 62 stations and provides fire protection for about 16,000 square miles.

''They were never recognized and were not absorbed or taken over or anything like that,'' Smith said. ''Once we found out about them, we didn't train or have contact with them except to disavow them. That's why they went away.''

Rich's educational credentials also have been questioned by borough officials, who claim his bachelor's of science degree was not obtained from a legitimate degree-granting institution.

Rich did not return phone calls from the News-Miner on Friday.

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