Centerville Fire Chief Suspended Following Investigation

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The City of Centerville says it has suspended its fire chief after an investigation determined he responded to a call for service with alcohol in his system.

On May 3, a complaint was received regarding the potential that a firefighter at a water rescue scene may have been impaired by an alcoholic beverage.  This complaint was immediately addressed by the Centerville Police Department.

The firefighter against whom the complaint was filed is Chief Vern Milburn.  Chief Milburn was immediately placed on administrative leave subject to an internal investigation.  A personnel investigation has been completed, and the facts from the incident have been reviewed.  

The investigation determined Chief Milburn submitted to a preliminary breath test after the water rescue had been completed, which indicated a blood alcohol content of .026, well below the per se legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in Iowa.  Chief Milburn drove his personal vehicle to the fire station and rode in an apparatus to the scene of the incident; at no time did Chief Milburn operate any city-owned vehicles during this incident.  Though Milburn could operate motor vehicles lawfully, Milburn violated departmental policy.  Centerville Fire Department policy states, “No firefighter shall respond to an alarm, or attend a meeting, drill, or other department-sanctioned event or activity while under the influence, to any degree, of alcohol, drugs, or any other debilitating substances.”

The city says Chief Milburn has been forthcoming about the mistake. He admitted to consuming a few beers upon returning home from work at approximately 8pm and was in bed when the call for service was dispatched several hours later. Upon reflection, Chief Milburn stated he understood why he should not have responded to the call for service but felt an obligation to be there for his staff and community and did not feel impaired when awoken by the alert tones for the call for service.

Though in violation of the zero-tolerance policy above, Chief Milburn facilitated incident command of the scene and made the correct call not to deploy a boat with Centerville fire personnel to effect the rescue of two persons in the water.  The stranded subjects could talk to us and stated they were in good condition to await further assistance from an outside agency.  “Our staff are not trained for swift water rescue and did not have a boat with a motor or lights to perform the rescue safely,” stated Chief Milburn.  With the assistance of the Ottumwa Fire Department and personnel, the rescue was conducted using the appropriate equipment by staff trained in swift water rescue, which resulted in a successful outcome for the stranded persons.  

In recognition of the severity of the situation, Chief Milburn has agreed to significant disciplinary action and other conditions as part of the disciplinary process. According to the city, this action underscores its commitment to upholding the community’s highest standards of conduct.  Chief Milburn has served the Centerville community for over 35 years and has served as the Fire Chief for approximately the last year and a half.

The city says Chief Milburn’s acceptance of responsibility and discipline, in conjunction with the learning that has occurred as a result of this incident, provides confidence to City leaders that this error in judgment will not have a reoccurrence.

In a news release, the City of Centerville says it is committed to transparency within its community. With Chief Milburn’s cooperation, the city felt that sharing the facts regarding this incident was in the best interest of both the city and the community. The City considers this matter to be closed.

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