Sunday, April 21, 2024

Rising to the Challenge: New fire chief looks to move forward

Last fall, Ricky Vaughan was looking forward to a new chapter in life after accepting a job offer to become the next fire chief of Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1.

Then the FBI raided his soon-to-be office.

Longtime Argyle Fire Chief Mac Hohenberger was indicted by a federal grand jury in November after allegedly stealing nearly $500,000 from firefighters’ pension funds for his personal credit card expenses. On Nov. 17, the FBI arrested him and searched the ESD’s headquarters on South Gibbons Road in Argyle.

Question marks surrounded ESD leadership, because Hohenberger was planning to retire at the end of the year. Vaughan, 53, was to assume the chief’s position on Jan. 1, and he started having second thoughts.

“When the news came out and I found out about how bad all this was, I had a family meeting at the house and said, ‘Is this something we’re ready for? It’s going to be a lot of work,’” Vaughan said. “I was really concerned at first about the wellbeing of the firefighters. They’re hurt, and there’s a feeling of betrayal. It’s a terrible thing that’s happened.”

Vaughan’s career started at Carrollton Fire Rescue in 1995, and he worked his way up the ranks, being named Assistant Fire Chief in 2017. He also concurrently served in the U.S. Navy Reserves for 22 years, including a tour in Iraq in 2005-06, according to the ESD.

Vaughan is self-motivated for self-improvement, he said, setting aggressive goals and completing them. After retiring from the Military, he decided to train for and complete a marathon, which he did at the age of 41. Then, he sought to earn a master’s degree by the age of 50, which he did with a Master of Public Administration from Sam Houston State University, with a concentration in Disaster and Emergency Management.

Even in his free time, he enjoys reading because “continuing education is the key to keeping yourself motivated.” And he is motivated to help a fire department reeling from scandal, feeling betrayed by its ex-leader of two decades.

“I’m not shy of challenges,” Vaughan said. “I see this as an opportunity to better myself and the organization, and to leave the ESD better than I found it.”

Vaughan said he was welcomed with open arms as he joined the district, and he’s noticed how the crisis has brought the firefighters together.

“The Band-Aid has been ripped off and the wound now can heal,” Vaughan said. “I get a sense they knew something was not right. I think they see a lot of positives in things I am doing and will do. They’ve made me feel confident that we will get through this.”

Vaughan also said he is proud of the firefighters and administrators for how they’ve handled the news, and how they didn’t let it affect their service to the community.

“I want to make sure the citizens know the level of service never changed,” he said. “I want to assure them that progress is already being made, and we’re 10 times better than we were a month ago. We are on the road to recovery, and this will never happen again.”

Vaughan said that before he started, many financial decisions at the district required only one signature – Hohenberger’s – which provided the lack of oversight that allowed for the alleged embezzlement.

“Why someone would want that much control to begin with is beyond me,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan and Assistant Chief Cody Miller immediately made a change to require two signatures on financial decisions, one of many changes being made to improve the district’s transparency, accountability and checks and balances.

“It’s an opportunity for us to make a fire district that people can envy,” he said. “We can rebuild it the way we want it to be. That’s a challenge I didn’t anticipate when they first offered me the position, but as challenging as it is, I do see it as an opportunity.”

To the public, the ESD and the Argyle Volunteer Fire District seemed to be one and the same, especially considering the ESD went by the name Argyle Fire District until a couple years ago. But they’re separate entities, each with its own board. The ESD was established by the vote of residents in the ESD borders — including Argyle, Bartonville, Copper Canyon and Northlake — in 2006. Since then, the ESD has essentially only served as a taxing entity that contracts with the Argyle VFD, a nonprofit that is not governed by the county or town, to provide fire and EMS services for about 48,000 southern Denton County residents.

In the wake of Hohenberger’s arrest, the Denton County Commissioners Court and town councils in Argyle and Northlake all formally called for the AVFD to be dissolved and be absorbed by the ESD. That transition is in the works, Vaughan said, and he took the first step to show the rest of the district that he’s serious about change.

“I was originally offered the job as the AVFD chief, not the ESD chief,” Vaughan said. “I think it’s important we send a message, a way to lead by example, by me becoming the first ESD employee.”

Vaughan was sworn in as the ESD’s first employee on Jan. 4, and he’s aiming for all AVFD employees to become ESD employees by early spring.

“You can’t dissolve overnight, and we want to do it right,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll get past this phase.”

That is the priority right now for Vaughan. Over his first six months, he expects to focus on the ESD transition, resolving accounting issues and the rest of the fallout from Hohenberger’s arrest. Then, Vaughan said, he’ll take other things off the backburner, items that were to be his priorities when he first took the job, before “the incident.”

“Then, the focus will be on planning next 3-5 years to meet service demands,” he said. “My goal is to help the ESD to advance to the next level of service, help it grow and manage that growth.”

As the population grows within the ESD’s borders, especially in and around Northlake, Vaughan expects the ESD to need a new fire station in the next three years, and possibly another one in about 10 years or so. He said he also prioritizes customer service and wants to be more proactive in teaching CPR to the public, especially in middle and high schools.

Outside of work, Vaughan enjoys playing golf and spending time with his wife of 25 years, Lisa, and his daughter, Olivia, a junior in high school. They recently moved to Copper Canyon, and they’re “trying to leave the world a better place.”

“Being a public servant is a calling of mine,” Vaughan said. “Having a cause is important, and even when I retire, I’m sure I will volunteer and stay involved in the community.”

Mark Smith
Mark Smith
Mark Smith is the Digital Editor of The Cross Timbers Gazette.

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