THORNDIKE — What had been a department of 28 firefighters Wednesday morning became a one-woman operation by the end of the night.

All firefighters but Lauren Carter resigned in protest at a Wednesday evening Board of Selectmen meeting. The mass walkout came after the town’s elected officials maintained that former deputy chief George Russell no longer should be involved with the department, which is not run by the municipality but rather an incorporated company that elects its own leadership and receives some town funding. Thorndike, a rural community with a population of 807, now will be served primarily by neighboring fire departments through a mutual aid agreement, including those in Jackson, Montville, Brooks, Troy, Unity and Freedom.

Despite ultimately walking out of the meeting in resignation, several firefighters maintained that they valued public safety the most.

“It is the safety and security of every citizen in this town and around (that is our No. 1 concern),” said firefighter Shawn Bristol, raising his voice as he spoke. “That is why we come, that is why we show up — to help protect life and safety and property of everybody in this community. … (This situation) is a slap in the face to every single person who has put our lives on the line.”

Town officials were acting in response to a letter they received at the end of January from the heads of four Waldo County emergency service groups. The letter criticized Russell over a lack of leadership and training, saying he endangered firefighters as well as the Thorndike community and the communities to which Thorndike offers mutual aid. On Friday, the letter was distributed to townspeople, several of whom showed up on Wednesday evening to ask the board and firefighters in attendance about the situation.

The letter was co-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.

Accusations included “out of control” radio usage that blocked the frequency for dispatchers, nonworking equipment and faulty communication with other departments. In one case, Thorndike failed to notify partnering towns that several of its firetrucks were out of service until a major house fire broke out. In another instance, a firefighter was led to enter a house with a non-operational attack line.

The letter also referenced Russell pleading guilty to stealing over $5,000 of department money in 2015. Gillespie later added that Russell “doesn’t have any firefighting certificates,” despite having once held the position of chief.

Thorndike selectmen meet Wednesday night to discuss concerns that Waldo County officials have with the town’s fire department. All but one of the department’s firefighters, who were seated at the tables, got up and resigned in protest. Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

Russell was demoted to deputy chief after the 2015 court case and formally resigned from that role Friday. Chief Bill Isbister resigned Wednesday morning.

Several members of Thorndike’s fire department maintained that their outdated equipment — and not Russell — was at the root of the concerns the Waldo County officials outlined in their letter.

“The issues with Engine 4 — well on that Palmer Road fire, it was specifically said by the company’s command that we got that truck from … that that’s the exact reason they got rid of it,” said Thorndike firefighter Timothy Veazie. “That should have been something originally told to us anyway, but that’s a separate issue, not something to be placed on George. It’s not his fault that mechanical issues happened. It does happen.”

Selectman Bob Carter said that the Unity fire chief, who allegedly sold that truck to Thorndike, told him again after the Wednesday meeting that it was a “lack of training on running the pump” that created the problem, not faulty equipment.

The Thorndike volunteer department elects its own leadership, which the selectmen then approves or rejects. The town officials also control the funds the group can access; but beyond that, it does not preside over any of its operations. While this relationship is not uncommon in Maine, it can make the fire company difficult to regulate, according to Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton, who suggested that the town reconsider the department setup.

Thorndike’s fire chief is paid $2,400 a year; and the deputy chief, $425 a year, according to the 2018 annual town report. The report also lists $2,200 for the department’s volunteer firefighters.

Read the letter

 

‘ONE MEMBER STILL’ 

Going into the Wednesday meeting, the firefighters were looking for the board to release $85,000 from the truck and equipment replacement fund to address some of the problems raised in the controversial letter. The “purse strings,” a phrase used by Selectman Bob Carter, remained closed Wednesday night, which contributed to the mass walkout of more than two dozen people with ties to the fire department.

In a resignation letter Russell gave to the board, signed as president of the Thorndike Volunteer Fire Company, he attributed the decision entirely to “unsafe working conditions due to outdated and unsafe equipment that the Town of Thorndike Selectman Refuse to replace putting not only the Firefighters lives at risk but the public as well.”

Bob Carter said this “blindsided” the selectmen.

“When the fire department comes into our selectmen’s meetings, after the minutes are approved, usually first thing on agenda is the fire department,” he said. “We go over anything they want, and I’ve yet to see anything we’ve denied. Turnout gear, training materials, equipment — we’ve always (approved the requests). I don’t know where they came up with (the $85,000). We were never asked if we needed a brand new firetruck.”

Before the exodus, Bob Carter said he would be open to reconsidering Russell’s role in the department if Clements, Gillespie, Rowley and Smith sent another letter asserting that their concerns about Russell had been resolved.

“The biggest thing that struck me about this letter is it came from firefighters about firefighters,” he said. “You don’t hear firefighters (throwing) firefighters or police officers throwing police officers under the bus; you just don’t. And then when you get something like this, you go, ‘OK, what the heck they’d do so bad that this happened?'”

As the conversations on Wednesday night escalated — at times resulting in board Chairman Larry Ward shouting to keep tempers down and the meeting on course — Bob Carter remained firm with his stance.

“Our lawyers looked at it. (The Maine Municipal Association) looked at it. It doesn’t look good for George. That’s all I have to say,” he noted. “Those four people that wrote that letter — have them write another letter that clears George so he can be on the fire department. Besides that, all we have is what we have in this letter. If they can get us a letter that says something different — but as of right now, this is what we have to deal with.”

April Turner, a Freedom Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary member, encouraged the Thorndike firefighters to get a new letter from Waldo County officials within two months in order to reach a compromise with the selectmen that would allow for the reconsideration of Russell’s involvement. Freedom is one of the towns that relies on Thorndike for mutual aid.

In an informal address to the board, Turner drew applause from the firefighters for defending the Thorndike department.

“Are we a society living in a community that says once you’ve done wrong, you’ve always done wrong?” she asked. “And if we are, are we going to lose a fire department that is going to increase the amount of time that it takes for our homes to be protected if they catch on fire? Are we going to ask all the other rural fire departments around us to do more work that are already short on money and volunteers? We cannot afford to lose Thorndike fire department. And if this whole company of men and women walk away because George isn’t able to be part of the fire department, we are losing a huge asset for all of our towns. We cannot look at this and say because of one person, we’re going to lose the fire department. That is not fair to the taxpayers. That is not fair to the neighbors. … Don’t do your town a disservice and lose your firefighters.”

Lauren Carter was the only member of the Thorndike fire department to not resign in protest Wednesday night. “You have one member still,” she told selectmen. “I’m not resigning.” Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

Joshua Ard, a Thorndike resident in the crowd Wednesday, said personnel issues seemed to be trumping the firefighters’ commitment to public safety.

“I think that George is a great volunteer firefighter. I think you all do a great job,” he said. “But my concern here is: What’s your No. 1 concern in the town? Is it being volunteer firefighters or is it protecting George’s reputation?”

Throughout the meeting, Russell sat quietly among a crowd of his peers, chiming in only once, when directly addressed by Turner. She asked if he would agree to return to the department if the Waldo County officials rescinded their previous letter. Russell responded: “This Friday I was told by the town that it would be best to step back. I spoke with Larry Ward, offered to step down and I was told it was better off to not come back.”

“You’ve been singled out as a detriment to our department, George,” Ward, the board chairman, responded. “There’s nothing against you. I personally have enjoyed working with you. But you’ve been singled out as a problem.”

Turner made another plea for a two-month deadline on obtaining a second letter from Clements, Gillespie, Rowley and Smith, which was met with silence from the board. Russell was one of the first firefighters to exit the room not long after that. The other firefighters followed his lead, standing up and walking out.

“All Thorndike fire personnel will no longer be covering this town. Have a good night,” Bristol said on the way out of the town office.

“You have one member still,” Lauren Carter said. “I’m not resigning.”

 

DEPARTMENT CHANGES

After their departure, the only firefighter who did not resign in protest said that she has observed problems with the way the department operates for quite some time.

“It’s extremely frustrating from the inside, (to) be the only person sometimes standing up saying, ‘This is not how we need to do things,'” Lauren Carter said. Lauren Carter and Bob Carter have no familial relationship.

She said a trained firefighter who had moved recently to the area from New Jersey was forced out of the Thorndike department for trying to address problems later raised by the Waldo County officers.

“The current leadership of Thorndike (Volunteer) Fire Company actually kicked him out of the fire department for trying to make too many changes, for trying to have training, for trying to have background checks, for trying to do the things the letter said needed to be done is the reason why he was kicked off fire department. (They’d say:) ‘This is Thorndike. We don’t do things this way.'”

Trafton, who is also a Thorndike resident, recommended that the town consider having the department be run by the municipality.

“I think, in my own opinion, that this whole fire company thing isn’t working in Thorndike,” the sheriff said, later adding, “Right now it’s a popularity contest so that George is popular with the firemen, and they put him in charge. Even after he wasn’t chief, he was still running the show. Everybody here knows that.

“Maybe we put … an article on the town warrant for the citizens of this town to decide if we want to continue with the current fire company organization or if we need to have a municipal fire department — which a lot of towns do — and then the selectmen are responsible for picking the fire chief and then that chief will take the volunteers, train the volunteers, and maybe some of this will go away.”

Thorndike’s selectmen seemed to favor the idea.

“Your proposal exactly mirrors the advice of our legal counsel and the Maine Municipal Association,” Ward told Trafton. “That’s what everybody’s telling us.”

Thorndike’s Town Meeting is scheduled for Saturday, March 16. Bob Carter said it would not be feasible to get an article on the town warrant before that date.

“We’re pushing hard right now,” he said. “We just had our Budget Committee meeting last night, and it’s not too long before the town constable needs to post the warrant. Timewise, it’s just not do-able.”

Instead, he said, the selectmen would need to create an ordinance, hold a public hearing and either convene a special town meeting or wait for next year’s regular Town Meeting to hold a vote on creating a municipal fire department.

“I spoke with (the Maine Municipal Association) this morning to see if it was possible for Thorndike to become a municipal fire department and they said, ‘Oh yes, a lot of towns are doing that or have already done that,'” Bob Carter said by phone on Thursday. “They’re getting away from the fire department being incorporated and making it into a municipal (department).”

Carter said the selectmen will keep trying to find a solution.

“It’s too bad for the townspeople of Thorndike and everybody else who has to deal with it, but it will iron itself out.”

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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