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One town's firefighter gear saga

RANDLEMAN — After two years of delays, firefighters in Randleman are getting new gear. The new equipment — helmets, boots, bunker pants, jackets and gloves for approximately 41 crew members — will cost the city about $80,000.


The purchase effectively puts to rest the potential of fines from OSHA for having outdated gear.


Elizabeth Sechriest, Randleman financial director, said in an interview the equipment has been a long time coming but that the delay was due largely to circumstances beyond the city’s control.


Sechriest said a request was made by then Fire Chief Marty Leonard in 2020 for new equipment.


“But that was the year the world went crazy,” she said.


In 2020, the entire world was feeling the effects of a global pandemic. COvID-19 closed factories, furloughed employees across every sector of the economy and shut down restaurants and schools. Basically, the world ground to a halt. Even as the economy started to reopen, labor shortages and supply chain issues complicated deliveries for many businesses, Sechriest said.


Sechriest said the equipment was backordered in 2021 and 2022. Then, in August 2022, the city got a new fire chief in Steve Lovette when Leonard retired. Sechriest said Lovette expressed an interest in using a different manufacturer to supply the gear.


As delays dragged the process out, someone filed a complaint with the N.C. Department of Labor (DOL) on or around Dec. 12, 2022. Sechriest said she doesn’t know who made the complaint.


“We don’t know if it was someone in the department or a local citizen,” she said. “We can’t ask. It’s against state law.”


The identity of the person or persons who filed the complaint is shielded to protect those involved from possible retaliation, Sechriest said.


Erin Wilson, DOL communications director, confirmed that the department received a complaint. That report can only be made available through a public records request. She said the case is still open.


“However, an inspection is not planned at this time since the employer is actively working to correct the issue and fines can only be assessed following an actual inspection,” she said in an email.


Acting city manager Greg Patton confirmed the difficulties the city has had in updating gear for the city’s firefighters. If there is one good piece of news, he said, it’s that the city’s budget has not been negatively affected by the relatively large purchase. 


Patton said the city typically budgets $50,000 each year for the purchase of equipment for its fire department. That money was not spent in 2021 and 2022, making it available for the purchase this year.


Sechriest said the city made the purchase in two batches. That gave local fire officials a chance to review the quality and effectiveness of the gear from the new vendor, she said.


Sechriest said officials in city hall are aware of concerns expressed by local citizens about this problem. She said it is likely the Board of Aldermen will receive an update on the situation at the next board meeting. That meeting is open to the public and is set for March 7 at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 105 W. Naomi St. in downtown Randleman.