NEWBURY — Selectmen are reviewing the town’s policy that allows firefighters to stay on active duty until they are 70 years old, in light of an opinion by the town counsel that the practice is contrary to state law.
The town’s lawyer, Ginny Kremer, told the board last week that Newbury faces a possible liability if it continues its practice of employing firefighters after they turn 65 years old. According to state statute, if a municipal employee’s job title is “fireman,” then he or she “must retire at age 65,” Kremer said.
Even if in practice the person does not actually fight fires, if it is in his or her job description, “that’s where the problem is,” she said.
But Selectman Michael Bulgaris contends that the few employees who fall into this category are far more of an asset to the department than a liability. Bulgaris said he is working with local state legislators to explore the possibility of seeking a waiver from the state to allow Newbury’s independent fire companies to continue operating as they currently do.
Bulgaris, who turns 70 this year and so will retire as a town firefighter, said that the older fire personnel provide critical leadership and experience to younger firefighters, who are the personnel actually doing the fire suppression in most cases.
He argued that the current policy has worked well for more than 100 years and changing it would “put a tremendous hardship” on the department and the town.
Fire Chief William Pearson noted that the town’s insurance company has no age limit on its coverage for his personnel.
Bulgaris called Newbury’s firefighting program “a model for the whole state” and said he objected to turning away knowledgeable personnel just because they hit a particular birthday milestone.
He said he plans to meet with the Board of Fire Engineers and get its recommendation and the selectmen will continue the discussion at the July 9 meeting.