Taxpayer money and donations helped buy thousands of dollars of equipment for the Labelle Fannett Volunteer Fire Department (LFVFD), but that equipment now sits locked behind doors unable to be used as it was intended.
"About 99.975 percent of the equipment that's in that station right now was purchased through donations and fundraisers undertaken by us on the behalf of the community, who supported our barbecues, our spaghetti suppers, our auctions, things of that nature," said volunteer firefighter Dennis Gifford.
To understand how LFVFD got to this point, one needs to rewind eight years to when Hurricane Ike ravaged southeast Texas with 110-mile per hour winds and torrential rain. The storm damaged thousands of homes and buildings, including Labelle Fannett's lone fire station.
According to documents from the Jefferson County Auditor's Office, LFVFD claimed Ike damaged equipment totaling nearly $170,000. However, several volunteers told Jefferson County investigators that some of that equipment hadn't been damaged and some had never been owned by the department at all.
In March 2016, the Department of Homeland Security delivered a notice of debarment to the fire department's treasurer, Henry LaBrie. It says, in part, "you made false and fraudulent representations regarding the financial claims .... to maximize monetary returns from insurance companies and FEMA reimbursements." As to which claim FEMA was referring, 12News cannot confirm that, but we have formally requested that information.
The debarment means that for three years LFVFD cannot receive any federal loans or grants "for the government's protection," according to the letter.
"That was kind of the last step of the Emergency Services District wanting to go a different direction," says Jeff Roebuck, president of Jefferson County Emergency Services District #4.
As a result, ESD #4 terminated its contract with LFVFD on Oct. 1 of this year, deciding instead to launch its own fire department.
"Labelle Fannett is no longer allowed to respond to emergency calls," says volunteer firefighter Ashley Kester.
Fire department administrators sued ESD #4, but a judge issued an injunction preventing the department from "providing any emergency services" within ESD #4's boundaries.
"Most of the volunteer fire department members have joined the Emergency Service District in its venture start a new department and try to get things back on track," says Gifford.
Gifford, Kester and Scott Wade are three volunteers who made that move, but they're frustrated the gear with which they've worked isn't moving too.
"We still do our best to respond to our community and to serve our community. That's what we're here for," says Kester. "But it's really frustrating when the ambulance that you're used to using to take out to respond to those calls is locked behind doors that you don't even have the key to."
No one from the fire department or LaBrie himself have responded to the calls or messages we've sent over the past two weeks looking for answers.
However, the volunteers promise your call for service will get a quick and professional response, despite the obstacles they face.
"We wish we had access to all our equipment, but we don't," says Gifford. "We're not going to let that hamper our ability to serve the community."
Adds Wade: "I want the homeowners to know that we're doing the best we can with Jefferson County ESD #4."
The situation is in no way resolved, though; LFVFD's lawsuit against ESD #4 goes to trial on Oct. 17.
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