Retirement leads to BFD restructuring

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Assistant Fire Chief Tim Cook was being investigated for possible misconduct prior to his retirement Feb. 1, Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz confirmed Monday.

Cook, a 45-year-veteran of the department, was placed on paid administrative leave last October, and a third-party investigation was conducted, but was dropped, with no action taken when he retired, Berkowitz said.

“We did in fact have a third-party investigation, but the investigation we authorized was stopped as a result of his retirement,” Berkowitz said. “The reality of all that is Mr. Cook retired.”

Asked for comment on the reason for his retirement on Tuesday, Cook said, “That’s in litigation,” and declined further comment. He said he was advised not to speak about it, and expressed surprise that Berkowitz had confirmed the investigation had taken place.

Berkowitz would not comment on the nature of the investigation, only saying that it related to whether Cook had violated the department’s policies, procedures and practices. In his role as assistant fire chief, and as a town employee. Cook was paid a quarterly stipend, and continued to receive that stipend up until his retirement.

Berkowitz said he had no direct discussion with Cook until Cook notified the town that he had decided to retire. Berkowitz and Fire Chief Glen Garland accepted Cook’s decision effective Feb. 1. No actions have been filed in either District or Superior Court in Cumberland County regarding Cook or the town.

Garland said Tuesday that Cook’s departure leaves a huge hole in leadership operations, and he wanted the public to know how much Cook’s dedication to the department has contributed to the department over the many years he served, especially with regard to how much money he has saved the town.

Garland said Cook spent countless hours of his own time researching and working with equipment and training requirements for firefighters. Just a few of Cook’s recent projects included reprogramming of radio communications and testing firefighters for proper fit of breathing masks. Garland said Cook saved the town thousands of dollars by becoming a trained tester for the facemask tests, so that the town did not have to hire a company to come to Bridgton on multiple occasions to conduct the tests.

Because Cook’s business, Lake Region Towing and Auto Repair, is located in Bridgton, Cook was nearly always available to respond to fire calls and serve in a leadership role in firefighting operations. Garland works full-time with the Portland Fire Department.

Garland said he has met once since Cook’s retirement with the four district chiefs of the department, who are Todd Perrault at Central Station, Tom Harriman at North Station, Harold Woodman at South Station and Bob Wiser of West Station. The leadership team is currently discussing possible changes in the leadership structure with the goal of reorganizing the department to maintain its effectiveness.

Garland said more meetings are planned, and ideas for restructuring the department will be brought before all of its members, which currently number around 45 people, adding that the number is often mistakenly thought of as being 60 or more members. Because Bridgton still has an on-call fire department, with its members paid only while on fire calls, it’s important to give each member a voice in decision-making, as has traditionally been the case, he said. Garland said the department may decide to bring the operational structure changes before selectmen and the town as early as this June.

Berkowitz also said he’ll be asking for recommendations on restructuring the department in the wake of Cook’s retirement, and that “Selectmen should be brought into the discussion.” He said Bridgton is not unlike many small towns facing the ongoing loss of firefighters who are available to answer calls during the day, but that “The tipping point is somewhere down the road” for Bridgton having to consider the change from an on-call to a career fire department.

“Tim had 45 years of institutional knowledge, and that’s a loss,” Berkowitz said. “It’s one more example of the struggle Bridgton has in not having per diems available during the day.” The town of Gray, where he lives, started out this way, operating for a while with per diem firefighters available during the work week, and volunteers picking up the weekend coverage, he said.

“They limped along for quite a while this way, but now (Gray) has a full-time chief and a full-time firefighter during the day,” Berkowitz said. Gray has not yet, however, gone the way of Windham and Falmouth, he said, both of which have a full-time regular paid fire department.

“We’re reviewing the structure now and trying to determine what we need to do going forward to retain the effectiveness of the on-call fire department,” Berkowitz said.

 

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