Gardiner’s fire chief says a 911 mix-up may have led to more property damage than necessary after nobody notified his crew about a serious fire within city limits.
Firefighting crews from Farmingdale and four surrounding communities responded to a late-December blaze that engulfed the back addition of a two-story Northern Avenue house in Gardiner, destroying the back side of the home and killing a dog inside. No one was in the house, owned by Jason Joseph and Stephanie Rolfe, according to city assessing records, at the time of the fire.
Gardiner firefighters weren’t dispatched to the fire because the passer-by who reported the emergency said it was at a Farmingdale address, according to the chiefs of both departments.
Gardiner Fire and Rescue Chief Mike Minkowsky said if his crew had been notified immediately, firefighters could have been on scene, about a mile away from the fire station, in three minutes.
“Our ability to aggressively attack the fire in that early stage could have had a profound impact on the outcome,” he said.
Minkowsky said he can’t know for sure, but based on the ability of the department’s firefighters, he thinks they could have controlled it as just a room-and-contents fire, not a full structure fire. Gardiner has a full-time fire and rescue department that employs 14 firefighters and emergency personnel.
The incident commander on the scene for Farmingdale’s volunteer fire department, Capt. Doug Ebert, said his crew didn’t realize the house was in Gardiner until late in the firefighting efforts. Even after discovering the error, Farmingdale never notified Gardiner, whose chief found out when an angry resident called the next day asking why city’s department hadn’t responded.
“It’s a situation where (Gardiner) should have been alerted as soon as we found out,” Ebert said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Ebert, also chairman of the town’s Board of Selectmen, wouldn’t comment on whether he thinks calling Gardiner would have reduced the extent of the damage.
“We’re all in it for the greater good and putting the fire out, no matter what town it belongs to,” he said.
Officials from Gardiner and Farmingdale met Wednesday to figure out how the mix-up happened and how to avoid a repeat in the future.
Northern Avenue stretches westward from Maine Avenue to Hallowell-Litchfield Road. Most of the 5-mile road is in Farmingdale, but for about a 500-yard stretch, the 16 houses located on the even-numbered south side are in Gardiner.
Officials from the communities agreed to a protocol under which dispatchers will call both fire departments if a fire is reported on sections of streets with both Farmingdale and Gardiner residents, Minkowsky said. The departments have yet to approve the agreement’s final language. The municipalities also share Adams Street and Maine Avenue, both connected to Northern Avenue.
Fire departments from the surrounding communities of Hallowell, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner — all volunteer departments, including Farmingdale’s — responded to the fire Dec. 20 because they have automatic mutual-aid agreements with Farmingdale, Dana Mealy, Farmingdale’s fire chief, said. They are dispatched automatically to any fire in Farmingdale.
The city of Gardiner has a mutual-aid agreement with Farmingdale, meaning the city’s Fire Department will respond if called and vice versa. They don’t reimburse each other for resources spent on calls in other towns.
Minkowsky said his department was told by its dispatch center that a fire was ongoing in Farmingdale, but Farmingdale never asked for assistance.
Officials from both communities said this was the first incident they can remember in which an address mix-up led to one of the communities not being notified at all that an emergency happened within its borders.
Mealy said it was the first time he remembers an address confusion for a fire with a significant outcome. He said there have been other emergencies reported in the wrong municipality where Farmingdale and Hallowell meet, such as on Outlet Road.
“It happens, but it was certainly an oversight on our part that we didn’t notify that night,” Mealy said.
After saying Tuesday he would send the fire report to the Kennebec Journal, Mealy hadn’t sent it as of Friday.
In a similar situation in July, Gardiner responded to a fire at 16 Northern Ave. in Farmingdale. When Gardiner responders realized the fire was in Farmingdale, they immediately alerted the town’s Fire Department, Minkowsky said. Gardiner continued firefighting efforts and suppressed the fire, which appeared to have started on the stove, within five minutes, according to the report from Gardiner.
“All of our relations have been excellent,” Minkowsky said. “We definitely want to forge ahead with healthy relations that get us to a place we need to be, and that’s working for the public.”
Both chiefs said it’s likely the passer-by who called in for the 94 Northern Ave. fire in December looked at the house number on the other side street and assumed he or she was in Farmingdale. The Kennebec Journal made a formal Freedom of Access Act request for the 911 transcript of the call, but had received no response as of Friday.
Attempts to reach the homeowners — Jason Joseph and Stephanie Rolfe — were unsuccessful.
The Office of State Fire Marshal is investigating the fire.