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Ousted Huntsville fire chief just wants his job back Add to ...

Suspended Huntsville Fire Chief Steve Hernen says that, contrary to the official count, there was indeed a casualty at the recent G8 Summit held at Deerhurst Resort.

"Me," he says. " I'm the casualty - me and my family."

The popular former fire chief was reassigned to deskwork in mid-May following what was described as a "breach of national security." The reassignment was believed to be temporary.

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According to the Integrated Security Unit, Mr. Hernen gave his secret pass "token" and password to his deputy chief, Gary Monahan, so that Mr. Monahan could walk backup firefighting personnel through a practice session on a computer. The computer program allowed G8 security officials to be presented with various scenarios and asked to enter an appropriate response given their responsibilities.

When security officials notified town council of the alleged breach, council reassigned Mr. Hernen at full pay, and named Mr. Monahan acting fire chief for the town and surrounding Lake of Bays Township.

Local firefighters initially were upset with the change but accepted that their chief would return at the end of the G8 gathering. Hang tough, Mr. Hernen says he told his staff and volunteers: "We'll show the world we can do this."

With the summit over and Mr. Hernen still not reinstated, about 60 firefighters launched a work-to-rule protest this week, saying they will respond to calls but placing a moratorium on all training, meetings and general housework. "The trucks will stay dirty," says Mr. Hernen with a smile. "We have a larger protest going off now that the G8 has left."

"The rank and file wants their chief back," says Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty.

Mr. Doughty, who stood by Mr. Hernen in May, wants to see everyone move on. He has openly wondered if perhaps "breach of national security" was a bit overstated - the ISU firmly believed otherwise - but the mayor also believes that for the former fire chief to be properly exonerated and reinstated, there has to be transparency. "This isn't something we have any experience or ability to adjudicate," Mr. Doughty says.

The town therefore brought in outside legal help and commissioned a retired Ottawa police superintendent, Knowlton Roberts, to produce a report on the matter.

The ISU, meanwhile, informed the Huntsville radio station on Wednesday that, as far as its concerned, the "door is closed" on the issue. To them, it is now between the town and the former chief.

"We need their side of the story," says Mr. Doughty.

Mr. Hernen, in turn, is fighting back, hiring his own lawyer and, for the first time, telling the story from his side. "I've always been the good employee," says the 45-year-old former chief. "You know, go home, say nothing - but now it's time to tell people what it really is."

There were times in the past month when he was convinced he would be arrested. It affected his wife and school-age children. "I'm no longer scared I'm going to lose my job," he says. "But I'm pissed off. I want it off my record. You Google my name now and what do you find? Hundreds of references to 'breach of national security.' What if I'm applying for another job?"

Mr. Hernen explains the "breach" this way: He and several other firefighters were doing training sessions at Hidden Valley, a resort beside Deerhurst. Each was assigned a "token" or "key" to get access to the computer training program and each also had a password.

He says there was no security when they went for their sessions. Several of his colleagues have signed statements saying they were never asked for ID.

The week of the alleged breach, the computers failed. The firefighters waited four hours without the IT people being able to repair them. When one "token" did work, Mr. Hernen suggested they return the next day and, if necessary, complete the session using the single token that worked. "You do whatever you think is easiest," he says the secure personnel in charge of IT told him.

The next day, with Mr. Hernen planning to return to the computer exercise, a fuel truck flipped on a nearby road and he went to oversee matters. He sent his assistant, Mr. Monahan, to the session in his place, giving him the token and saying he would e-mail the password. "We had permission," Mr. Hernen insists.

Security personnel noticed Mr. Monahan checking his BlackBerry after using the key to the system, asked what he was doing and found he was using Mr. Hernen's password. They immediately took the token away from him. "The crazy thing is," says Mr. Hernen, "the very next guy gives Gary his token - and he uses that to get into the system."

Mr. Hernen recognizes the mistake in protocol but says, "It's a training exercise - so you can learn. The worst would be that they take you aside and say, 'Hey guys, you can't do that.' "

ISU felt otherwise, and acted. Once he was removed and his duties largely replaced by officials from the Ontario Fire Marshall's Office, Mr. Hernen says the ISU lost its "local point man." He says he had saved them considerable embarrassment numerous times before he was removed and, surprisingly, continued his work afterwards.

"I was still running some of the G8," he says, "but out of my garage. They kept bringing me contracts to look at and plans and maps. The Summit Management Office … were still calling me the week of G8 - a month after I'd been suspended for 'breach of national security.' "

Thursday evening in Huntsville, Mr. Doughty plans to meet with the area firefighters to discuss the issue and explain why an outside report is the way to go, even if it requires some extra time.

As for Mr. Hernen, he says: "I just want to get back to running the fire department."

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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