MANCHESTER — For the first time in 45 years, Manchester on Tuesday will no longer be part of a mutual aid pact through which firefighters from six member towns automatically respond when a blaze breaks out in any of the communities.

The change has some residents concerned for their safety and critical of local officials for not working more closely with the other members of the Lakes Region Mutual Aid group to keep the 45-year working relationship going.

“Why would you jeopardize the residents of Manchester?” said John Black, a resident who previously was a firefighter in Manchester for 23 years but is now, instead, a firefighter in the neighboring town of Readfield.

“This is asinine to eliminate the six towns as one. We can’t afford to lose the mutual aid. I’m not speaking as a firefighter. I’m speaking as a resident. I’m looking out for the community. I just hope nothing happens in this town.”

Manchester officials say the current mutual aid agreement with the other five towns — Fayette, Readfield, Wayne, Mount Vernon and Vienna — is not working anymore due, in part, to some of the towns being relatively far away from Manchester and, in part, due to what Robert Gasper, chairman of the selectman and a captain in the Manchester Fire Department, described as personality conflicts between a few in the group.

He said the change could be an improvement to public safety in town.

“It was no surprise to anybody in the mutual aid group this was coming,” Gasper said of Manchester’s decision to withdraw Oct. 1 from the Lakes Region Mutual Aid group.

“It wasn’t working anymore, so it’s time to think about a different way to do business. And do business with the guys on our borders.”

In Manchester’s letter to the other member towns of Lakes Region Mutual Aid, Town Manager E. Patrick Gilbert wrote the community is seeking to strike new, reciprocal agreements for mutual aid responses to fires and other emergencies with five municipalities that share borders with Manchester — Augusta, Hallowell, West Gardiner, Winthrop and Readfield.

“The town of Manchester has valued its association with the Lakes Region Mutual Aid group, however, feels it is beneficial to take advantage of the proximity of its abutting neighbors,” Gilbert wrote.

Gasper said Manchester already has longstanding agreements with all five of those communities to assist one another at fires, but they are now being updated.

Gasper said some parts of Manchester are a 40-minute drive for firefighters responding from the Lakes Region Mutual Aid group town of Vienna, and it makes sense to partner more closely with municipalities that surround Manchester, including Readfield, also a Lakes Region member.

Black and a handful of residents at a heated meeting last week of the Manchester selectmen, attended by about 30 people, expressed concerns about the change.

Black said a prime concern of his is water, saying the Lakes Region Mutual Aid towns, with their various tanker trucks, could bring some 13,000 gallons of water to a fire scene, while the proposed new partners, which he said rely more on hydrants for a water source, have tanker trucks capable of holding much less water — as little as 500 gallons.

Gasper said if there were a fire in Manchester, other surrounding towns will still be called to help bring water to the fire scene, just like they are now.

He stressed that, despite tensions between a few local firefighters in area departments, when a fire call comes into any one of them, and that department seeks help, the departments set aside any differences and respond to fight fires together.

“When (a fire) happens, people put the baggage aside, though I’m not saying, after, they won’t go back to their sandboxes,” Gasper said. “All the baggage generally goes out the window when a real call happens.”

But he acknowledged personality conflicts are part of what is driving the change.

He said a Lakes Region Mutual Aid association member, whom he did not identify, said he does not consider Wozniak to be a fire chief.

Wozniak declined to discuss the matter or why that individual might not recognize him as a chief.

Black confronted Wozniak, who missed much of last week’s selectmen’s meeting because he and other members of the Fire Department had to respond to a fire call for a report of a tree on electrical wires, for allegedly not attending meetings of the Lakes Region Mutual Aid group, and said he had heard the chief did not go to their meetings because he thought other members would pick on him.

Wozniak responded that Manchester always has someone at the mutual aid meetings and other towns also did not always send their fire chiefs. He also said he did not see a need for him to go to the meetings because he thought they would likely turn out like last week’s heated meeting in Manchester, and not be productive.

“I haven’t seen a lot of value in it because, frankly, I thought this is what would happen,” Wozniak, still dressed in some of his turnout gear, said at last week’s selectmen meeting.

Resident Dana Demos said if Wozniak cannot “play nice” with the other fire chiefs, he should not be chief.

“With all the squabbling and going back and forth,” Demos said, “someone is going to lose a life.”

Interviewed on Sunday, Wozniak said he has been in fire service for 16 years, has held every position within the Manchester Fire Department and has undergone training in basic firefighting, but has not completed Firefighter I or II training. Gasper said that specific training is not required to be a firefighter.

Wozniak’s position as fire chief was turned into a full-time position, rare for a small town, in a proposal approved by voters at this year’s annual Town Meeting, who approved a salary of $37,440.

Gilbert said at that meeting the position was made full time because the number of people volunteering to be firefighters in Manchester, and elsewhere, has been in rapid decline, and the department has roughly a third the firefighters it had years ago.

Wozniak said there are now about 15 members in the department.

Readfield Fire Chief Lee Mank said while he wishes Manchester would remain in Lakes Region Mutual Aid, he understands officials there need to do what they feel is in the best interest of  the community.

“We definitely don’t want them to go, but they have to make the decision that’s right for them,” Mank said Sunday. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

Mank said over the years, there have been some issues between some members of departments in the group, but declined to talk about them because he said those have no bearing on the current situation.

He responded unequivocally when asked whether firefighters in the Lakes Region towns would still respond to a fire in Manchester.

“Absolutely, we’re all here as firefighters, that’s our common goal,” he said. “If somebody calls, we’re going to go, no matter who it is.”

However, residents at the Manchester meeting noted that response will no longer be automatic. Currently, when any of the six — soon to be five — departments is called to a fire scene, all of the departments get the tone requesting help at the same time, so all can respond immediately.

Gasper said while no such agreement exists yet with the proposed new partner towns, a new automatic response agreement is a possibility.

In response to Manchester’s leaving the Lakes Region group, the chiefs in the other five towns signed a letter to Manchester requesting the town acquire its own radio frequency — within 60 days — and stop using the frequency obtained for the use of the group’s members.

“We feel having a non member town on the LRMA frequency may cause confusion and possible safety concerns in the future,” the chiefs wrote.

While Gasper said that will make communicating with the other towns more difficult, Mank said Manchester and the other towns will still be able to communicate with each other by radio, even after Manchester leaves the group’s frequency.

Some residents suggested Manchester voters should decide if the town should be part of the Lakes Region group or strike a new agreement with other towns.

However, resident Leon Strout, chairman of the Planning Board, said there would be no benefit in taking the issue to a town meeting because it would just result in another heated discussion.

He told selectmen, “We put you up there to make the decision.”

 


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