NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 26, 2014

Fire engineers unhappy with reappointment process

BY JENNIFER SOLIS
CORRESPONDENT

---- — WEST NEWBURY — The Board of Fire Engineers has said it needs more consistency as it works to strengthen a fire department that has experienced a good deal of change over the past few years.

But although all five fire engineers left Tuesday night’s selectmen’s meeting still seated on the board, several were clearly unhappy with how the scheduled reappointment process was handled.

Selectman Joe Anderson began the discussion by voicing concerns about what he feels is a gray area within state law regarding the maximum age a person can serve on the fire board.

If firefighters can only serve until age 65, and fire engineers are statutorily required to take charge of a fire scene — including performing the duties of a firefighter — doesn’t that mean fire engineers must also retire from the board at that age? he asked.

Town counsel Michael McCarron responded that the fire board is a governing body and people chosen to serve on it don’t have to be appointed as firefighters. “I don’t think the statute has to be interpreted so literally,” he said.

Citing a similar debate currently ongoing in neighboring Newbury, Anderson said “it seems that different town counsels have different opinions.” But McCarron insisted there was no case law to support either position — “basically we’re just interpreting law,” he said.

Speaking directly to fire engineer Bob Janes, the only one of the five who is over 65 years, Anderson said, “It’s nothing personal. I just don’t want to put the town at risk. That’s why I’m asking these questions.”

Janes said he no longer considered himself a firefighter. “I’m not going to be out there hauling hose or anything else. I don’t believe that I have that authority — and I don’t want that authority.”

Anderson then turned to fire engineer Mary Ann Fowler, saying he had concerns about reappointing her because of what he feels is her lax record of attendance at drills and calls.

According to the town’s payroll sheets, Fowler responded to only one alarm and attended no drills from Jan. 1 through March 31, and her participation in calls and drills has been minimal since she was appointed as the board’s first female engineer last spring.

Janes and Fowler were appointed at the same time, when selectmen decided to expand the board from three to five members.

“I’m concerned about the example that presents to the department,” Anderson said. If he voted to reappoint her, would she make an effort to attend more calls and drills?

“It’s impossible to tell,” answered Fowler. “Two years ago I made every drill and most of the calls.”

Sometimes when she responds to a call, she discovers that enough firefighters have responded ahead of her. She doesn’t put in to be paid for those times, so they don’t show up on the payroll.

Interim fire Chief Michael Dwyer takes a holistic approach to assessing a person’s contribution to the force. “It’s beyond just drills and calls — it’s showing up at the fire station and helping when we need help.”

Selectman Glenn Kemper made a motion to reappoint the entire board, saying he thought it was a good representative mixture of different age groups and gender. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Kemper said.

But selectmen chairman Bert Knowles thought the role of the fire board “has sort of gotten muddy” in recent years. Previously when people were appointed as fire engineers, they immediately resigned from the fire department, a practice that “sort of went by the wayside” when the board was expanded in 1990.

Knowles noted that under the chain of command, a fire engineer over 65 years old could wind up being in charge of a fire scene. He referenced a time back in 2009 when selectmen forced the mandatory retirement of three veteran firefighters, disqualifying the men from serving on the Board of Fire Engineers.

By today’s standards some of those men might still be on the board, Knowles said.

But when he tried to amend Kemper’s motion to stipulate that the fire board’s only responsibility is the administration and supervision of the department — meaning firefighters could no longer serve on the board — the response from the engineers was swift.

“That’s not acceptable,” said Fowler.

“That’s not acceptable,” repeated her colleague Mark Hemingway.

And Janes added, “I’d quit before you did that.”

Anderson then made a motion to appoint all engineers except Fowler, saying her lack of participation remained an issue for him. Fowler said she wasn’t going to say she would participate more just because that is what Anderson wanted to hear. Her attendance might “ebb and flow” but even if it were a year of missed calls and drills, “it’s a small snapshot of my dedication,” she insisted.

With the three selectmen at a clear impasse, Knowles reminded his colleagues that under state law, the term of the current fire board runs until successors are appointed and qualified. Hearing that, selectmen took no action on the appointments — and all five engineers retained their seats.

But as she exited the meeting room, Fowler commented that “with all due respect,” the board’s lack of action didn’t exactly exude a vote of confidence for the current Board of Fire Engineers.

Following the meeting, Anderson stressed that his position wasn’t personal. He just felt that when someone in a leadership position fails to participate in tasks required of the rest of the department, “it sends the wrong message.”