Hilmer defeats Kolb in election for six-year term on fire board

Criticism leveled at fire chief disturbing, board chair says

Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer and board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman celebrate Hilmers re-election to the fire board in the April 4 election. The two were first elected in April 2005. Gloria Lloyd photo.

Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer and board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman celebrate Hilmer’s re-election to the fire board in the April 4 election. The two were first elected in April 2005. Gloria Lloyd photo.

By Mike Anthony

Aaron Hilmer believes his election to a third six-year term on the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors is a clear mandate to continue the reforms and service enhancements the board has enacted since 2005.

Hilmer, first elected to the fire board in 2005, beat back a challenge by Jane Kolb in the April 4 election.

Hilmer, who has served as board chairman since April 2005, received 11,194 votes — 53.33 percent, according to unofficial election results. Kolb, the wife of a Monarch Fire Protection District firefighter/paramedic, garnered 9,765 votes — 46.52 percent.

While he is pleased with his re-election, Hilmer told the Call that the “most disheartening aspect” of the campaign were the attacks on Chief Brian Hendricks and his command staff.

“What’s troubling is the administration were always firefighters and paramedics working alongside these same people, and to say all this bad stuff about the district makes you think that they’re not doing their job,” he said. “To a person, I could tell the residents you can sit and talk to any member of the administration, man or woman, and you’d walk away impressed with their knowledge and passion for the district.

“So going forward for the next six years, I want to do my best to support them and anyone else who is interested in taking the district forward.”

Hilmer particularly was bothered by the criticism directly leveled at Hendricks.

“If that would have happened to the local school superintendent, people would be up in arms,” he said.

Hilmer, 42, was first elected to the fire board along with board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman in April 2005. In the months leading up to the 2005 election, Hilmer and Stegman campaigned as reform candidates looking to eliminate fiscal waste.

Board Secretary Ed Ryan first was elected in April 2007. Since then, all three have beat back election challenges to retain their seats. In 2011, firefighters’ groups spent close to $100,000 supporting Hilmer’s union-backed challenger Mike Klund. Klund also lost to Ryan in 2013.

As for what Hilmer termed “the biggest lie of the campaign,” he said, “I felt that I was portrayed as someone who hates and denigrates first responders, when in reality for the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve kept my pie hole shut, and all I did was approve the chief’s requests for more pay and increasing available overtime for employees …

“I believe most residents echo exactly what the board says: We appreciate the work they do, but we just don’t want your union running the district. All this stuff of ‘Hilmer hates firefighters,’ I’ve never said those things. These were all things created. Just because you’re not in charge doesn’t mean we hate you.”

What’s frustrating, Hilmer said, “Is how I feel that the good people working there are being held back. Their earnings are being held back. Their image is being held back by this stuff. So the employees have a real decision to make: Do they want to live in the past or are they going to accept the residents’ will and become part of the solution and not the problem?

“This is the sixth election cycle where residents have said this is the direction we want to take the district. At some point, I hope this vocal group of employees starts respecting the residents’ wishes,” he said.

One of the claims leveled by critics was that the working environment at Mehlville is terrible, Hilmer noted.

“What was really disturbing is to hear all these claims of a horrible work environment, a pins-and-needles (atmosphere), all of this. I would ask anyone who works here to contact me directly with proof of something like this,” he said. “And if they don’t, it’s clear that’s it not even true, and then they’re nothing more than a bunch of cowards banging their keyboards on social media.”

Hilmer’s immediate focus is to oversee the rollout of the district’s new critical care paramedic program.

Critical care paramedics have the ability to perform advanced clinical patient assessments and provide invasive care beyond the standard scope of treatment. Mehlville will be the only fire district in the county to provide this enhanced level of care, he said.

“We are hiring 10 CCPs (critical care paramedics). The first are going to start on May 1,” Hilmer said. “In the next board meeting or two, we’re going to be approving even more equipment to help upgrade the services, and how are we going to pay for this? Hiring these CCPs is going to be a slight increase in what we spend, but most will be revenue neutral by eliminating so much overtime and replacing it with these critical care paramedics.”

Hilmer plans to continue his efforts to educate the residents about the fire district.

“I want to educate the public on district matters, especially as we roll out the critical care paramedic program, and also I think that something very important is this whole turnover thing that comes up. It’s not comparing oranges to oranges. We’re the only district in the county that I know of that doesn’t run a 48/96 work schedule,” he said. “And residents don’t know what that means, and I want to educate them on what that means. Basically, you go to work once a week.

“Does any resident want someone who has been at work for over 40 hours sticking a needle in their arm, driving heavy equipment and making life-or-death decisions? And that’s no.”

Firefighters who work a 48/96 schedule are on duty for 48 hours and then are off for 96 hours. Mehlville employees work 24 hours, are off 24 hours, work 24 hours and then are off for 48 hours. They then work 24 hours, are off 24 hours, work 24 hours and are off again for 96 hours.

Hendricks has told the Call that because of the MFPD’s high volume of calls, he believes a 48/96 schedule would pose a safety risk to employees and residents.

Of a 48/96 schedule, Hilmer said, “You can’t point to one thing where it helps the residents. In my opinion, you can forget about all the pay and benefits that I’ve talked about over the years, that is the most self-serving, egregious thing I could imagine because there’s no way someone at work for a day-and-a-half, you literally could be up for 41 hours, and you run a call, how could you be at your best? Our engine house No. 1 is the busiest engine house in the county.”