John Salas goes up for confirmation hearing
by Nick Delgado
Guam - The allegations surfaced over the past couple of weeks about the island's fire chief appointee became a huge part of the discussion during John Salas' confirmation hearing this morning. There was overwhelming support for the confirmation of Salas to return to the fire department as chief.
Staff like Captain Jose Cruz testified that Salas is a man of integrity and his leadership is a breath of fresh air compared to the previous chief. "His intent was never for the good of the department, but for his personal endeavors," he exclaimed. "In my 25 years of service I have never seen the GFD morale so low."
Other likes captain Andy Arceo agrees morale has picked up at GFD, as has efforts to turn things around in terms of the movement to hire more personnel, repair and purchase new fire trucks and ambulances. "We need him to guide us to a more stable, a more productive, and a more versatile department to better serve our community; the Guam Fire Department will be an outstanding crew now that we have an outstanding leader," he said.
In his testimony, the acting chief started off by acknowledging his firefighters by saying they are unsung heroes, putting their lives on the line day in and day out. Salas said, "Often take their commitment and services for granted, they're always amongst the first in line for criticism and negative publicity and last in line for recognizing."
Salas proceeded to give an update on some of the things he's been working on since his appointment noting that two surplus fire trucks from the Navy should be on Guam's streets by the end of the month and new ambulances should be rolling out this July. He also announced that GFD should finally start charging for ambulance services come April.
Senators likewise seemed impressed by his demeanor and the smile he kept through his testimony, but they were also a little concerned about whether he would be soft when it comes to making tough decisions. "One of your weakness is to say, 'No' - you're more of a 'yes' man, so to speak," stated Speaker Judi Won Pat. "Yes, ma'am," he replied. "In a way I am, but the thing is depending on the severity of the incident I can become very harsh. And take action as needed."
And taking action is what some senators wanted answers too, specifically what happened during the Korean Airlines crash that occurred on Guam in the late 90's. Salas was head of GFD's Internal Affairs Division at the time. Allegations surfaced that firefighters allegedly stole personal items of crash victims. Although they eventually turned into GFD IA, they later went missing.
Senator Aline Yamashita said, "How do we clear this up? Because I have people calling me and saying that you knew that money was taken and wallets and identifications were removed, and I just need to know." Salas responded by saying, "These firefighters were there all night fighting this particular fire, they were all exhausted and if they did pick up these items, like I said they are over exhausted they're tired, they could have put them in their pants into their pockets and probably might have forgotten they did put it in their pockets until such a time when they went home."
Oversight chair Senator Adolpho Palacios meanwhile questioned Salas about four uniformed personnel that have been assigned administrative duties within GFD's Special Projects Program. He questioned why they're still receiving overtime when the law is clear that they're not entitled to it, noting, "Firefighters working administrative duty shall work 80 hours per day per pay period at regular rate of pay in the same manner as any GovGuam employee. So those that are there as we speak and maybe tomorrow they'll be there under what authority are you paying them 106 hours regular and 14 hours overtime?"
"Can I get back to you on that sir?" said Salas.
Salas said he would like the lawmaker to gather everyone involved and hold a roundtable discussion on this very issue to iron things out. Palacios meanwhile has asked that Salas submit the pay roll records for the four uniformed personnel assigned administrative duties. The oversight chair is also asking the Attorney General's Office for an opinion.
Salas meanwhile said is working on a master plan for the Guam Fire Department and working on creating a firefighters wives association.