Several Waldo County emergency service agencies have voiced serious concerns about the Thorndike Fire Department.

A Jan. 23 letter to the town’s selectmen claims that former Thorndike Deputy Fire Chief George Russell’s leadership decisions have endangered his underlings and the municipalities that Thorndike assists through mutual aid. The letter is signed by Ken Clements, president of the Waldo County Firefighters Association; Bill Gillespie, president of the Waldo County Fire Chiefs Association; Dale Rowley, director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency; and Owen Smith, director of the Waldo County Communications Center.

“Our concerns lie within his lack of training and leadership skills to the point where we are concerned for the safety of both your Firefighters and the Mutual Aid Firefighters that could fall under his leadership,” the letter reads.

The town’s selectmen were scheduled to discuss the situation Wednesday evening this week.

The letter was emailed to town residents by Town Clerk Doreen Berry on Feb. 15. In the last week, Russell has stepped down from his role as deputy fire chief, in part because of the urging of the Waldo County emergency service representatives, who brought up his “legal issues” as well as his “lack of training and leadership skills” in their letter.

In 2015, Russell — fire chief at the time — pleaded guilty to stealing more than $5,000 of department money. The selectmen did not re-appoint him to the position afterward.

Since Thorndike’s fire crew is an association rather than a municipal department, firefighters vote internally on their leadership, which is then approved or rejected by the selectmen. It does not receive the level of oversight that municipal fire departments receive.

In a phone interview, Gillespie said that Russell “doesn’t have any firefighting certificates.”

Read the letter

“In order to be an interior firefighter, you have to pass a basic Firefigher I or Firefighter II class,” he said. “To be a chief, there (are) no requirements. There should be, but there aren’t. So anybody off the street can come in and be a chief. The situation is more like a popularity contest, not necessarily qualification-based. With no training, you could be the chief of the department and be giving direction to firefighters who have to do what you say, even if you’ve never been experienced with the situation yourself.”

Gillespie said that problem is one that the Waldo County Fire Chiefs Association is working to regulate. In the meantime, he hoped that the letter he co-signed to Thorndike officials would “make the select board aware of the liabilities the town takes on when you have a department that is not trained to a decent level.”

Russell and current Thorndike police Chief Isbister could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

In the letter, Clements, Gillespie, Rowley and Smith outlined three instances they found particularly concerning in connection to Russell’s lack of training and leadership. In one case, they referenced not being made aware of several Thorndike firetrucks being out of service until a major house fire occurred on the town’s Depot Street, which is close to the Thorndike fire station.

“The threat at that point in time was that the equipment was all out of service,” said Gillespie. “Mutual aid was not aware of that situation. … It took firefighters from other communities to come in and attack the fire. The difference between being around the corner and 6 miles to nearest town obviously had an impact on the house fire, not to mention the communities they are working to protect. When you have other communities relying on the equipment, it’s up to us to advise mutual aid when equipment is not working so we can step in appropriately and know what our role is. When we’re not aware, it becomes a surprise.”

In another instance, the officials claimed that “firefighters entered a house fire with an attack line only to find out that it did not work property and the Pump Operator was not qualified to run a new truck to your fleet,” according to the letter.

The Waldo County Regional Communications Center reportedly has made several complaints about Thorndike’s radio usage being “out of control.”

“When you have a large event, you have to have one person in charge to manage that event so there is not a lot of confusion on what needs to be done,” Gillespie explained. “During (one call), unfortunately, there were multiple people involved in deciding how to fight that fire. That created a tremendous amount of confusion, a lot of chaos for dispatch. With only a few dispatchers managing law enforcement, fire and EMS responses, it is easy to overload if there are to many people making decisions and too many people trying to manage the situation. (Russell) and the assistant chief were on that call and certainly didn’t work to take control of it.”

Gillespie noted that all of the co-signing officers’ agencies have offered free training and mentorship opportunities for members of the Thorndike Fire Department, but that no one has taken advantage of those offers. The letter also outlined that the department did send four firefighters to Waldo County Firefighter Association’s Basic Fire School, which cost a total of $1,000. The association billed the Thorndike Fire Department in May 2018, but Gillespie said the outstanding balance was paid only after the association notified the selectmen directly in late January.

“The letter that was written spoke for itself,” Gillespie said. “It’s up to town of Thorndike as to what direction they want to go. We are here as supporting agencies to assist the town of Thorndike to make sure that no one is hurt or killed because of someone’s inexperience or negligence.”

The chairman of Thorndike’s selectmen, Larry Ward, said all of the issues raised by the letter are concerning, though he remained tight-lipped about next steps.

“My reaction is that we obviously have a problem with the Thorndike Fire Department,” he said. “It’s that simple. … We’ll have to see what happens. We will resolve the situation.”

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins


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