Bernardston firefighters concerned about possible restructuring

  • Bernardston Fire Station. June 7, 2017. Recorder Staff/Shelby Ashline

Recorder Staff
Friday, February 02, 2018

BERNARDSTON — The Selectboard’s proposal to do away with the Fire Department’s board of engineers has left firefighters concerned and wondering how a new governance structure might work.

The 12-member board of engineers attended Wednesday’s Selectboard meeting to discuss the change to a strong chief, which was proposed by Selectboard Chairman Stanley Garland late last year.

According to Fire Chief Peter Shedd, day-to-day operation of the 18-member Fire Department is handled by the board of engineers (Shedd included), which meets monthly but will often call special meetings to make time-sensitive decisions such as vehicle repairs and personnel changes.

Shedd only has absolute power at a fire or major incident, which can make immediate communication with the Selectboard difficult. Often the board will ask him a question and he’ll have to relay the question back to the board of engineers before providing a definitive answer.

Only a handful of towns across Massachusetts, including Gill, still operate with a board of engineers.

Thus, the Selectboard’s proposal is to switch to a strong chief system, giving Shedd more decision-making power. The change, if approved by voters at spring’s annual town meeting and by the state Attorney General’s Office, could possibly be implemented by fall, Shedd said.

A main concern that firefighters emphasized Wednesday was how a new chief would be chosen after Shedd, should that decision not be up to the board of engineers. They worried a new chief, who might be selected by a search committee, could be someone with no knowledge of Bernardston or its Fire Department’s services.

“It’d seem you’d want the people in the department to decide who to lead them,” said firefighter Jared Smith, noting that “someone who looks great on paper” might not be best for the job.

Resident Jane Dutcher noted that the town’s bylaws establish a probationary period for new hires, and selectmen said someone who isn’t suitable wouldn’t have their contract renewed, though firefighter Lance Barton worried firefighters might leave the department under unsatisfactory leadership. The group wondered if a separate bylaw would be necessary to ensure firefighter involvement in choosing a new chief.

The current lack of details was another big point of concern.

“I personally would like to see a little bit of a layout before this goes to town meeting,” said firefighter Tim Snow. “Some of us have 20, 30 years left down there. I’d like to see what we’re getting into.”

“The fear of the unknown is what’s killing these guys,” firefighter Lloyd Grover added. “Once you lose your fire department, you’ve lost them … You don’t wanna lose your fire department base.”

The Selectboard agreed to have additional meetings with the firefighters in February, and research the documents other towns use to establish a strong chief structure.

“I definitely think this needs to be looked into,” said Shedd, who would support changing systems. “There are a lot of questions.”