Feud Between Patrol, Firefighters in Western Montana

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – More than 60 volunteers with two western Montana volunteer fire departments will stop responding to highway emergencies west of Missoula until the Montana Highway Patrol agrees to treat the volunteers more courteously, the chiefs of both departments said.

West End Volunteer Fire District Chief Bruce Charles and St. Regis Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jerry Dockter said their volunteers will “stand down” starting Thursday unless the patrol ensures that patrol cars will enter fire department safety zones at reasonable speeds and troopers won’t interfere with fire operations at crash scenes, the Missoulian reported Tuesday.

The boards of the fire departments also asked that troopers “courteously interact with our volunteers, including checking in with the fire chief/incident commander when arriving on scene, and if necessary, helping the volunteers with flagging to control traffic.”

The fire boards said they will make exceptions at the request of the Mineral County sheriff’s department.

The move comes in response to what Charles and Dockter call the patrol’s “current attitude toward the safety procedures and protocol that the fire departments feel necessary to have in place at an emergency scene,” according to a public notice from the chiefs.

Charles said a written acknowledgement from Col. Michael Tooley or Attorney General Steve Bullock’s office that the conditions are reasonable is all it will take to resume or continue responses to crashes on Interstate 90 and Highway 135.

“We’ll take a look at that and see what needs to be done to try and get this back on the right track,” Tooley said. “But right now we have a job to do, and we’re going to continue to do it.”

The feud dates back to a May 2011 complaint that Trooper Richard Hader entered an accident scene and intentionally drove directly at Charles, forcing him to quickly move out of the way.

Tooley said an investigation, including a review of the trooper’s dash camera, found the chief’s complaints unfounded.

The issue escalated in February when Gary Dockter, Jerry Dockter’s brother and a volunteer firefighter for the St. Regis department, was charged with making false reports to Hader in an investigation of a February 2011 crash west of Superior.

The crash occurred after a state snowplow tried to cross from the westbound lanes of I-90 to the eastbound lanes to get around a wrecked semi tractor-trailer. An eastbound motorist swerved to avoid the snowplow and hit Mineral County Undersheriff Mike Boone’s car. Boone and the semi driver received minor injuries.

Court records say Gary Dockter denied helping guide the snow plow driver, but video from Boone’s cruiser appears to show him waving the driver across.

Gary Dockter pleaded not guilty March 12 in Justice Court. A trial date is set for June 16.

Hader declined to comment on the feud and the charges on the advice of his attorney.