Rowe fire officials  to improve department

Pledge comes on heels of firefighter complaint

ROWE — A week after selectmen received a complaint from firefighters about how the Fire Department is run, the fire chief and fire department administrator told selectmen they will work to make the department run better.

Waiving his rights to an executive session, Fire Chief Paul McLatchy II addressed each item in a “vote of no confidence” submitted to Selectmen on Sept. 25 against both McLatchy and Fire Department administrator Ed May. About 20 residents came out to what was posted as a closed-door session to show support for both men. Although chief for two years, McLatchy has been with the Fire Department for 28; May, the town’s former fire chief, has been with the department for 30 years.

The complaint, signed by four firefighters, said the department was out-of-compliance with National Fire Protection Association standards concerning accountability tags for firefighters at the scene of a fire, for mandated safety checks on equipment, for using old turn-out gear and for not having trucks correctly inspected.

The complaint also accused the department heads of allowing lapses in first-responder certification, initial training and radio communications. It pointed out that training records were not up to date. The complaint further charged there is outdated training material in the fire house and no plan of action for firefighting on Lower Tunnel Road.

May followed McLatchy in calling for an open meeting and discussed the items raised by the complaint.

McLatchy rebutted several points made in the complaint. For instance, he said that detailed inspection sheets exist for the fire trucks, which are inspected by the firefighters. He defended continued use of older turnout gear — some of it more than 10 years old — because he said it was still in good condition and had minimal use. In a complaint about old hoses still in use, he said the hoses can still be used, if they pass a pressure test; but he admitted they have not been checked in a long time and “this needs to be remedied.”

Another complaint was about the care and maintenance of open-circuit self-contained breathing apparatus. McClatchy said if an officer is aware that something is amiss, it should have been brought to his attention.

As to the lapses in training, McLatchy said he and May have tried to schedule some classes with certified trainers that did not come to fruition. One training mentioned in the complaint is not required by the state, and that no members showed an interest in the course, in response to an email McLatchy had sent them.

He agreed that training records are not up to date, and that he hopes to correct that by setting up a yearly training plan.

Another item in the complaint was the lack of an action plan for possible Deerfield River rescues. McLatchy said that issue has never been brought up before, and it’s not clear what agency is best equipped to deal with such an emergency.

In answer to a complaint about the appearance of the fire station, McLatchy said the station is now “cleaner than it has been in many years,” thanks to help from volunteers. He said many items from the burned-down school building are now stored in the fire station, along with items from other town departments.

McLatchy agreed with some of the firefighters’ suggestions, but thought the complainants should have come to him first, instead of going first to selectmen. He and selectmen discussed forming a grievance committee to improve communication between firefighters and the fire chief.

Orange Fire Chief Dennis Annear, who served as McLatchy’s counsel at the meeting, recommended that the chief be allowed to join the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, which, he said, could provide McLatchy with ample resources, including mediation services if needed.

Also, town officials don’t know whether the town governance calls for a “strong chief” or a “weak chief” in accordance with Massachusetts General Law. The two designations give the fire chief different levels of authority, with selectmen playing a bigger role in towns with a “weak chief” designation.

“I don’t claim to be a perfect chief, but I do my best to lead the department in a direction that provides services to the people,” said McLatchy. “I have my strengths, I have my weaknesses, and I hope that this process will help to highlight both.”

“I think it’s important to remember that this is a volunteer fire department and its members have other matters in their lives to attend to. To expect that this department will operate on the same level and sophistication as a department like Greenfield’s is both unrealistic and naive.”

Selectmen’s Chairwoman Marilyn Wilson said, “I think all the serious points can be addressed and corrected, to make the Fire Department stronger.”

In a separate statement after the meeting, Wilson wrote, “I have told all concerned that I am committed to supporting the Fire Department as it develops a plan to address the various issues. My belief is that such a plan can be put into effect easily and quickly. ... All members of the Rowe Fire Department have my complete support in this urgent and necessary endeavor.”

Based on the nature of the complaints raised at the meeting, it is not clear that the discussion could have legally been held in a closed-door session as most discussion was about professional competence.

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