WINSLOW — The Winslow Fire Department was given a gift of nearly $30,000 on Tuesday, but despite the financial boost, the department faces a serious obstacle. The town’s fire chief, Ronnie Rodriguez, said he can barely ensure that the department is meeting its minimum staffing requirement because of a lack of personnel.

The council voted to hold a workshop at 12:30 p.m. on Friday in its chamber to discuss solutions to the problem, which could include the immediate hiring of an additional full-time firefighter — an unbudgeted expense for the town.

Rodriguez informed Town Manager Mike Heavener in a Dec. 4 memo that the departure of two career firefighters — one who left for a job with the Waterville Fire Department and one who recently suffered a long-term injury — has left Winslow with six full-time firefighters and a call force of 21 people, only some of whom are fully certified to perform all of the position’s necessary functions.

“The current staffing model with the given (union) contract requires a minimum of two firefighters on duty at all times,” Rodriguez wrote. “Having one vacancy, either caused by injury, sickness, or other means places a burden on the remaining staff. Regularly scheduled overtime also creates additional risks such as burnout fatigue, stress, poor decision making, and injuries.”

Rodriguez said the injured staffer will be out until at least July.

“That pretty much says to me that we need to hire a full-time firefighter/EMT,” Councilor Ken Fletcher said. “We’re already paying for it (in overtime) — $57,000 in six months — so if we extrapolate that to a year, that’s $120,000. If we can reduce some of that, that would offset costs so we could have a full-time individual on the payroll. Is that the right solution for the immediate problem? It’s not in the long term, but it really sounds like we need to do something now. We need to hire somebody — a trained and qualified individual.”

Councilor Ray Caron expressed serious concerns about moving forward with a decision to hire another firefighter so quickly.

“I’m just not comfortable with the speed of it,” he said. “Right now, I just think I have more questions.”

Two full-time lieutenants, Jeff Reny and Adam Burgess, told the council about their concerns Monday and voiced support for the hiring of another career firefighter, at least in the short term.

“For the month of January I’m working — our normal shift is 24 (hours) on, 48 (hours) off,” said Reny. “Right now, I’m working 48 on, 24 off to cover the open shift and stuff like that. So yeah, we do get tired, it is a lot of extra work and it is an unsafe condition.”

Despite the diminished workforce, two grants will allow Winslow’s department to expand its equipment. The department was awarded a $27,339.61 donation this week from Firehouse Subs to add a new jet-motored rescue boat to its fleet. Firehouse Subs also donated personal watercraft to Waterville Fire Department.

“The goal was (for the gifts to) compliment each other, should any type of need arise for a water rescue,” Rodriguez said.

Winslow fire also received a $1,000 donation from the Sukeforth Family Foundation, which Heavener said is given out annually.

At the Town Council meeting Monday night, councilors unanimously voted to authorize Heavener to accept both gifts.

Along with the rescue boat, which will arrive in under six weeks, according to Rodriguez, the money from Firehouse Subs will finance a motor, a trailer and various accessories for the vessel. The Sukeforth donation will go toward the department’s equipment and maintenance budget allocation.

Firehouse Subs is a national chain of sandwich shops. A portion of its profits finances various needs of first responders across the country. According to the Firehouse Subs website, the company’s foundation has “granted over $40 million to provide equipment, training, and support to hometown heroes.” In 2019, the company will donate 0.11 percent of each purchase to its Firehouse subs Public Safety Foundation. There are four Firehouse Subs locations in Maine: one in Waterville on Waterville Commons Drive, one in Auburn, one in Topsham and one in Biddeford.

In other news, the council unanimously approved the purchase of a new wheel loader for the town’s Public Works Department. Paul Fongemie, public works director, said the current piece of equipment is roughly 20 years old and in need of replacement.

“It’s not neglected; it’s just old,” he told the council.

Fletcher said the current machine is duct-taped in some places and “looks like it needs to be replaced.” Officials authorized Heavener to spend up to $82,000 on a 2018 Wacker Neuson wheel loader with bucket, snowblower and angle broom attachments that can be used year-round. Heavener said that there is enough money in the town’s capital fund to allow for the purchase. There was a 6-1 vote, with Chairman Steve Russell in opposition, to waive the second reading on the order so that the machine could be delivered earlier.

“A lot of the communities are going through this,” Fongemie said. “To replace what we have right now, which is a U-Haul, is about $149,000 to 150,000. These are down in the 80s. Will they last 20 years? I don’t know, but it’s half the price.”

Fongemie added that Skowhegan and Fairfield recently purchased similar pieces of equipment and ultimately have been pleased with their performances, though he noted that Skowhegan “has had a few problems with theirs.”

Before adjourning, the council discussed residents’ interest in bringing the town’s Fourth of July parade back. Councilor Trish West noted that local digital marketer Tracy O’Clair approached her about the topic. For 26 years, Winslow hosted central Maine’s multi-day Fourth of July festival, which drew crowds of about 70,000 and featured a packed schedule of events ranging from live music to fireworks to children’s games and activities. After the 2016 Winslow Family 4th of July and clashes between the festival’s committee members and the Town Council and Heavener over unpaid or late bills, the committee moved the celebration to Clinton. It has been held at the Clinton fairgrounds for the past two years. On Monday, the council considered hosting a parade — not the entire festival.

“We’ve never had just a parade. It’s always been a big shenanigan — I mean, nice event,” West joked.

Although the council did not vote to form a committee or make a resolution, West and Councilor Ray Caron, along with Rodriguez and police Chief Shawn O’Leary, said they would be willing to engage in further discussion about planning the summer event with O’Clair.

“I think it’s time to have another parade,” Russell said.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins


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