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Ex-Fargo firefighter's appeal over termination denied

FARGO - Scot Kelsh spent more than six years as a Fargo firefighter. Now, he wonders what he's going to do with the rest of his life.

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Scot Kelsh
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FARGO – Scot Kelsh spent more than six years as a Fargo firefighter. Now, he wonders what he's going to do with the rest of his life. Kelsh and his doctors say he has post-traumatic stress disorder and can't work as a firefighter. After six weeks of looking for another city job, Kelsh was terminated Feb. 2. On Tuesday, Kelsh's appeal to the Fargo Civil Service Commission was denied on a 5-0 vote. The commission ruled-after hearing statements from Kelsh's lawyer Margaret Morley and Assistant City Attorney Nancy Morris, and testimony by city staff-that his termination was not done for political or improper reasons. Kelsh, a father of four, said that as a firefighter and emergency medical technician, he saw things that gnawed at him: injured children, attempted suicides, drug overdoses, decomposing bodies. "They (teachers and co-workers) try to tell you, but until you actually experience some of these things. You can't train for it. If it's an incident that involves a child, it's very emotional and traumatic," Kelsh said. Kelsh started firefighting in August 2009 at age 47. He said the job took a toll over time. That was particularly true during several incidents in August 2015, when calls he responded to included attempted suicides and a drug overdose, he said in a written statement that's part of the Civil Service Commission's record of the case. Kelsh also wrote that from January 2015 to September 2015, he had to work for a man who treated him with disdain.

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Scot Kelsh

Kelsh said he thought all was good again when his station got a new fire captain. But in early September 2015, he was visited by Battalion Chief Dane Carley. Kelsh said Carley told him that he wasn't meeting standards and would have to do remedial training for firefighting, EMT and driving skills. Until that point his evaluations had been "either glowing or all positive," he said. Documents obtained in an open records request were redacted to delete references to Kelsh's medical issues, though Civil Service Commission members referenced the diagnosis of PTSD during Tuesday's hearing. Kelsh said he sought help for the conditions that started to manifest themselves after meeting with Carley and the fire department's chief and assistant chief in mid-September 2015, when he signed a document acknowledging he had been told to improve his performance. He was then shifted to a temporary office job in the department. In mid-December, Kelsh was told he'd have to find a different job with the city, or he would be let go. Kelsh applied for eight city jobs, including a permanent version of the office job he had been doing, and posts in the inspections, planning, engineering and transit departments. He got a couple of interviews, but was told he didn't have the right qualifications. Kelsh said that's puzzling. He holds a four-year degree in environmental design and a bachelor of architecture degree, both from North Dakota State University. He worked as an architect for several years; directed the nonprofit Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund for nine years; and represented south Fargo's District 11 in the state House of Representatives for 18 years (1996 to 2014). In 2011, he helped found a firm called Cadre Consulting. He's also been involved with the city's historic preservation commission and other bodies. He even had letters of recommendation from the mayor and fire chief. "I was surprised a lot of those things weren't taken into account. Surprised and disappointed," Kelsh said. Jill Minette, the city's director of human resources, told the Civil Service Commission that the city isn't required to create a position for someone in Kelsh's situation, nor is the city required to transform another job, such as a firefighter slot, and turn it into an office position, because that would mean the fire department would be short a firefighter. Kelsh said he may be eligible for workers' compensation, or for benefits from city disability insurance. He may also be eligible for a firefighter's pension, he said. He's still trying to decide whether he will appeal the Civil Service Commission's decision to the City Commission.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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