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A man once convicted of arson was named a fire department’s acting chief. Almost all the firefighters quit.

Ten out of 13 firefighters from the Prairie Du Pont Volunteer Fire Department resigned in protest on Dec. 20. (Video: The Washington Post)
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An Illinois volunteer firefighter tossed his helmet, jacket and other heavy equipment onto a table during a heated Monday night board meeting about 10 miles outside of St. Louis.

“Here’s my gear,” the firefighter told members of the Prairie Du Pont Fire Protection District’s board of trustees. He was among the bulk of the department’s 13 volunteer firefighters to resign after his chief in St. Clair County, Ill., near the Mississippi River, was replaced by a man previously convicted of arson.

Capt. Laura Rosenkranz, who also submitted her resignation, told the board its decision was unacceptable. She is married to John Rosenkranz, the chief who was replaced on Monday without explanation.

Jerame Simmons, the fire department’s assistant chief, was put in charge as acting chief. The board of trustees wrote in a statement issued after Monday’s meeting that “a change in the Fire Department’s leadership is needed,” adding that it has full confidence in Simmons’s ability to head the department.

Simmons, who did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night, pleaded guilty to arson in 1999 after setting fire to ceiling tiles in his high school basement and to an abandoned house when he was 18. He was sentenced to four years of probation. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) later pardoned Simmons, KTVI reported.

“The town remembers the school being set on fire, the town remembers the house set on fire [where] we had firefighters fall and be injured,” Laura Rosenkranz told the station.

Simmons’s father, Herb Simmons, was mayor of East Carondelet in St. Clair County at the time of his son’s sentencing, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 1999. Herb Simmons is now the director of the county’s emergency management agency.

Ten of the department’s 13 firefighters quit in response to Jerame Simmons being named acting chief, according to KTVI. Eight of them submitted a letter to the board Monday announcing that — “with regret and sorrow” — they were leaving their positions.

Residents lashed out during Monday’s meeting. “All of our houses could burn down!” one woman said after several firefighters quit. A man who identified himself as a retired firefighter told the board: “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

John Rosenkranz told The Washington Post on Tuesday night that he had served as the chief for about three years and had been with the department for 19. He said the board has not explained in detail why he was ousted, leaving him feeling disheartened, dissatisfied and disappointed.

His firefighters felt the same way, he said. The move destroyed morale, he added, which was what led many to quit.

“These people feel like they have absolutely no other option,” Rosenkranz added.

Rosenkranz said the board held an “unusual” meeting in August in which they announced Simmons would be appointed the department’s acting assistant chief. Rosenkranz said he was not notified of the decision beforehand, even though he typically spent about 40 hours a week at the fire station on top of his full-time job as a teamster.

He said he felt similarly blindsided this week when the board removed him five days before Christmas. He now plans to address the St. Clair County Board and petition to have the appointed fire district trustee members replaced.

Ultimately, he said, he’s concerned about the safety of the community and its remaining firefighters after so many have resigned.

“It’s not important that I’m the chief or not the chief,” Rosenkranz said. “It’s about … making sure everything’s taken care of.”