SKOWHEGAN — Long-time Skowhegan Fire Chief Tom Keene, who’d been on medical leave since September, was relieved of his duties Dec. 30 by the town manager.
Keene, 58, who had been chief for 21 years, said he is considering hiring an attorney to fight the dismissal.
“It’s not the way I wanted to go,” Keene said Thursday. “Yes, there are hard feelings, but I’m not angry. I’m disappointed.”
Keene had been a firefigheter for more than 40 years. In the last two years, both his legs were amputated because of complications from diabetes. He went on medical leave Sept. 19 after his most recent surgery.
He said he’s ready to return to his administrative duties as chief, and told town officials in a Dec. 12 letter that he was cleared by his doctor to return to work, with some limitations, including needing a driver for the three months until he’s fitted with prosthetic legs.
“I didn’t see this coming,” he said. “I was kind of surprised and was offered the opportunity to provide a resignation and I chose not to.”
Keene said he didn’t think the dismissal was personal. He has not spoken to any of the selectmen about it.
Town Manager John Doucette Jr. said he had to terminate Keene.
“He’s not capable under the job description in state statute to perform as a fire chief.”
“It’s very hard, but as a town manager, I have to look at the Fire Department, the safety of the town — are we putting more of a burden on other employees there not having the fire chief capable of doing those things?” Doucette said. “I have to weigh those parts of it, even though it’s hard because I’ve known him for a long time.”
Doucette said Keene was not fired, but terminated because he he can no longer do the job, and he did it without the Board of Selectmen’s involvement.
“He was terminated by me — I do the hiring and I do the firing,” he said. “He just was not physically able to do the job of fire chief at a fire scene. He’s dealing with hoses and all kinds of things at a fire that he would need to deal with.”
But Keene said, “The chief really is not a firefighter anymore. You’ve been a firefighter, but you’re not a firefighter as chief, you’re an administrator.”
Under state law, a fire chief is the director of all firefighting operations and training. That person is responsible for the maintenance of equipment and buildings and the preparation of an annual budget to the community’s chief administrator.
The chief shall also “suppress disorder and tumult at the scene of a fire and generally direct all operations to prevent further destruction and damage,” according to the law.
Doucette, who is set to retire Feb. 28, could not be reached for further explanation of how state law applied to.
Online job postings for the position of fire chief in Maine, including the Maine Municipal Association, call for annual physical ability testing, stating the fire chief should have the ability to perform work requiring good physical condition.
Keene said he and his wife, Sheryl, are researching their medical insurance and disability options.
They are also considering hiring a lawyer.
“We definitely don’t want to hurt anybody,” said Sheryl Keene. “We don’t want to do anything against this town — but I feel what they did to him, they could have handled a lot differently.
“He’s still very functional. He’s very capable of doing the administrative part of his job. Most fire chiefs do not go into a fire, they’re the administrator. I feel they did not try to work around his disability at all.”
She said they are not angry with the town and have received much support since her husband’s medical problems began.
The Skowhegan Fire Department has eight full-time firefighters, plus the chief, and about 20 call firefighters. The Skowhegan Fire Department budget this year is $745,445, plus $150,000 for major purchases.
Doucette said selectmen will appoint an interim chief, but in the meantime the fire captains, Shawn Howard, Mike Savage and Rick Caldwell will be in charge.
Selectmen Chairwoman Betty Austin said she learned of Keene’s termination this week.
“We knew that John was working with him on things, but we didn’t have all the facts,” Austin said Thursday. “The only thing we knew with his health was that he was planning on coming back. I believe that we may be having discussion about that at our next selectmen’s meeting.”
Selectmen are scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Vice chairman Newell Graf said he would not discuss the matter until the board meets and discusses it.
Keene’s salary as fire chief was about $52,000 a year. He originally retired in 2001 and began receiving benefits from Maine State Retirement, which he continued to receive after he was rehired by Doucette in 2008.
Keene, whose right leg was amputated below the knee two years ago, was taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston Sept. 19, where he underwent emergency surgery to amputate the lower part of his left leg because of infection. Complications of diabetes include poor blood circulation, which can lead to severe tissue damage. Keene managed to get around and continue his job as fire chief with a prosthetic leg and crutches following the first surgery,
The Skowhegan Firefighters Association held a benefit dinner and auction for Keene in October when enough money was raised to build a wheelchair ramp and deck at Keene’s home.
Keene first worked as a firefighter in Norridgewock where his father, Winton Keene Sr., was the chief. He’s been a firefighter 42 of his 58 years.
Since 1976, he’s worked for Skowhegan and became chief in 1992. He retired from the fire department in 2001, but later returned as chief in 2008.