Angelia Elgin, fire chief of the Northeast Ambulance and Fire Protection District, remembers crawling over a couch while the house was burning down. She couldn’t see, which wasn’t unusual in fire situations.
The captain behind her yelled, “We got to get out of here; it’s about to flash.”
Flashing means that all the contents in the room reach ignition temperature and then explode. Just as she escaped, the room indeed flashed and went up blazing behind her. She didn’t think about it twice; she went back in to finish the job.
Elgin has been fighting fires and leading paramedic rescues for 16 years. In December she became the first African-American female fire chief in Missouri – and one of only six in the world.
She’s not afraid of entering a heated room and doing her job. That’s exactly what she did on March 2 at the Northeast district’s weekly board meeting.
A group of firefighters, led by the Local 2665 union members, presented to the board a letter of “no confidence,” which said that she was not leading the district in the right direction – particularly in regards to finances.
“Nothing has changed with this current administration. Under the spending practices of this administration, we as a fire department will be bankrupt by September,” said Greg Wood, a district firefighter and the district’s Local 2665 union representative.
At the same board meeting, Elgin presented a cost-cutting report that was not popular among some firefighters, particularly union members.
The report showed that overtime hours and sick leave time was significantly higher in the district than last year. In one instance, she showed a firefighter worked two straight weeks with overtime and then took off a full week, earning sick leave.
The firefighters earn considerably more money on overtime, and currently there are no limits on the amount of sick leave a firefighter can take, Elgin said. A month ago, Elgin implemented a policy that limits the number of people on a crew that can be gone at one time.
“That didn’t go over too well, because they had been used to being able to take off whenever they wanted to,” she said. “We can’t run a fire district like that.”
Elgin said such self-serving practices by labor are a large part of why the payroll “bloomed” from December to January.
In the report, she showed that one crew with nine full-time members had five people off at one time.
“From a management standpoint, not only do I have to pay for that vacation, but I also have to pay for someone to come in and fill that spot in overtime,” she said. “So I’m paying vacation time and overtime for all those individuals who are off.”
This week, the fire got hotter for Elgin – who has a Masters Degree in organization management, a Bachelors Degree in business, and two Associate Degrees, in paramedics technology and nursing. Her academic background blows away any fire chief serving before her, or in surrounding fire districts.
On Tuesday, a court that intervened in the administration of the district under a previous board majority ordered that Elgin’s pay be cut.
On Dec. 8, the newly court-appointed Board of Directors voted on Elgin’s promotion to fire chief with a salary of $107,000.
Three days later, St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge John Ross told the district’s attorney Anthony Gray to provide the court with evidence of her promotion. Gray said he hand-delivered her contract and a resolution of her pay to the court.
Judge Ross said that Gray did not file an official motion, and on March 9 Ross ruled to lower Elgin’s salary as fire chief back to her battalion chief salary of $80,000.
With this decision, Elgin will be the only fire chief in St. Louis County to earn less than the officers beneath her. She will make $30,000 less than her predecessor.
Opponents said that Elgin “got a raise” during a financially difficult time.
“The chief was promoted, and the position came with a higher salary,” Gray said. “You don’t call it a salary bump when you get a promotion.”
In a March 9 board meeting, board member Bridgett Quinlisk-Dailey also presented a financial plan to give Elgin a $90,000 annual salary.
Just doing her job
On Oct. 20, a temporary restraining order put a freeze on assets and all spending unless approved by the judge. State Rep. Don Calloway filed suit for the restraining order.
Calloway has argued repeatedly in various local media, including this newspaper, that the board majority at that time was mismanaging money and bilking taxpayers.
The district leadership at that time, and its attorney Elbert Walton, tangled with the State Auditor’s Office over an audit that was mandated by the governor. Though the audit has not been completed, an initial report did reveal mismanagement and questionable spending decisions.
However, Deputy Chief Airest Wilson said the court order freezing spending made it almost impossible for firefighters and paramedics to run calls.
In Elgin’s first days on the job, she said, “We had no toilet paper. We were out of EMS (emergency medical service) supplies. And the list kept going on and on and on. I knew coming into this position that I was coming into a hornets’ nest.”
Elgin has served as chief for eight weeks, and in that time she has had to convince utility companies not to turn off the district’s water and electricity. And she reinstated the health care plans when the company dropped the entire employees’ benefits.
Then she dealt with employees not getting paid – right around the holidays.
“I had employees who did not know how they were going to pay their mortgage, afford their children’s tuition or how they were going to buy food,” she said. “But they came to work every day. Services were not interrupted.”
‘A failed coup’
Elgin is a registered nurse, who worked in the intensive care unit and emergency room for 10 years with Saint Louis University Medical Center. She teaches at the fire academy in St. Louis County. She sits on the National Advisory Council for FEMA – and that is only the beginning of her credentials.
Yet, the union says she is not fit to lead the district.
“The union, power-wise, controls almost all of the districts,” said Wilson.
“When I say ‘control,’ I mean they control the Board of Directors. They put the Board of Directors in through political process. If they put you in office, then the tail can wag the dog.”
However, the union does not have a majority among employees at the Northeast district, and all three current board members have been appointed by the judge.
“I think what we saw last week was a failed coup,” Wilson said. “The vote of no-confidence was to throw her and a lot of the current people out of office.”
Wilson has since had firefighters tell him that they signed the petition out of that fear. Wilson said the people gathering signatures told firefighters, “People with the union will get control, and you people are going to be out of your job.”
When Elgin applied to the University City Fire Department, she said, the personnel manager placed her application in a drawer with six other African-American applicants, but said that her application “got lost.”
An affirmative action coordinator ordered the personnel officer to show him the applications, and finally the personnel manger produced the applications out of a locked drawer.
Applying to another district, she said, she watched the fire chief put her application in the trash.
“It’s unfortunate that there are still people who believe women can’t do a fire service job, and they only want to see us on an ambulance because they believe that’s the only job we can do,” she said.
Being a single mother, Elgin worked at the University City department for 14 years, while she earned nursing, bachelors and masters degree through night and weekend classes.
“My one-year-old daughter learned to read when I sat her in my lap and read my nursing books to her. Because I couldn’t do it any other way, she wouldn’t let me,” Elgin said.
“I’m trying to bring best practices because we can’t go anywhere but up. We’ve been down, we’ve been out. And we have to move forward.”