Fire Department rift healed with meeting of minds

 

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

A major healing is taking place of relations between Bridgton’s Volunteer Fire Department and the Board of Selectmen.

It began with the board’s recent acceptance of a study that used dry statistics and data gathering to paint a picture of firefighting needs in town, now and in the future. But the really big boost came on Nov. 11, when Selectmen Greg Watkins and Bob McHatton met with fire department members to hear their concerns.

“They were as happy to see us there as we were to be there,” Watkins said at the board’s Nov. 24 meeting. “We met for two hours, and talked about many different issues — fire prevention, technology at their stations, efforts at morale.”

Watkins wrote four pages of minutes detailing those discussions. Here are some of the highlights:

Firefighters speak

  • Firefighters were “devastated” when funding for a recognition banquet was cut from the budget last year, and explained the importance of recognizing the sacrifices they make, especially for their families’ sake. It’s also important as a time to recognize years of service and accomplishments in terms of professional development. The volunteer banquet, open to all town volunteers, just isn’t as appropriate, or held at the most convenient time, they said.
  • The training space used by firefighters is substandard, with a “dust-covered plywood” floor and “hanging wires from the ceiling.” There’s also no air conditioning, making training very uncomfortable in the summer.
  • Firefighters were also dismayed when the allowance for food purchases during fire calls was cut from the budget. “Members are not scheduled and cannot plan for when they will be called out,” Watkins wrote in the minutes.
  • He said members feel they are seen in the same light as official town department employees, when they are not. “The members of the department are working a full-time job, then leaving their families and homes to volunteer at trainings, calls, community events, fire prevention duties, etc.”
  • Firefighters regularly hold potluck gatherings at the Central Station, before meetings or trainings or to boost morale. “They would love to see more town administration join them more often for dinner, and to see what they do.”
  • In terms of technology, the firefighters said the one office they have is used for record-keeping including confidential records and is not usable by officers for their own record-keeping and data entry. One of the strong recommendations of the fire department study was for more planning, tracking and recordkeeping. “The only laptop that is available is the chief’s, when he is not using it.” The firefighters would like to see the town provide another office space and a few more laptops.
  • The town’s credit card for use by department heads often gets used up in terms of its monthly credit limit, which makes it difficult to get such items as parts for radios or other miscellaneous supplies. Why not assign a separate card to each department head, they asked.
  • More fire prevention work needs to be done in commercial/industrial locations, which will help the town with emergency preparedness and help the businesses meet their insurance requirements. “The current fire prevention officer is disappointed and not supported to do the job,” Watkins wrote. Last year’s total budget for fire prevention was $800, a figure not sufficient to do the job, even in buying educational materials. “This year, the open house that was held on Halloween alone exhausted the materials and budget allowed for (fire prevention) for this year.”
  • In terms of equipment, firefighters no longer see the need to buy a mini-pumper or a second airboat, and they want selectmen to be aware of that at budget time. What is needed, they said, is a suitable vehicle to tow the ATV trailer and airboat, as well as to serve as a safety vehicle. Fire Chief Glen Garland said the Cumberland County Fire Chief’s Association is looking into ways for towns to buy state and federal vehicles.

Selectmen speak

Watkins and McHatton, for their part, had a few ideas and concerns of their own:

  • Selectmen would like to know in advance of vacancies in the ranks of officers in the department. “Many positions within the department as far as officers have been vacated and not filled, because of the uncertainty of the direction the BOS was looking in with regard to a full-time fire chief,” the minutes stated. They told firefighters there are no plans to move forward at this time with a full-time chief, “and that it most likely is not going to be in the immediate future.”
  • The town needs to research rates of per-diem pay for firefighters in other towns, along with call volume, and then come up with a stipend plan that makes sense. The town also needs to determine how those individuals would be supervised.
  • The success of Assistant Fire Chief Todd Perreault in recently securing a $26,000 grant for radios makes it clear that the town ought to pursue the hiring of a full-time grantwriter. McHatton made this recommendation official when the Board of Selectmen met on Nov. 24.

 

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