Fire chief: Resignations won’t impact department

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The former fire station at 41 Cumberland St. was proposed by Mayor Mike Sanphy to be used again as a station for call members, and when councilors disagreed a handful of call members resigned.

WESTBROOK — Three more Fire/Police call members have resigned since last week, and while Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte says the department won’t feel a major impact, City Administrator Jerre Bryant questions whether the division will even continue.

Six members of the Fire/Police division have resigned in less than two weeks, leaving four members still on the force. Members of the Fire/Police division are call personnel who act in supporting roles for the department by directing traffic and performing crowd control.

“Fire/Police, like all divisions of the department, plays a big role, but our level of service won’t be affected,” Turcotte said on Tuesday.

The resignations follow the City Council’s inaction on July 20 to designate a separate building for call members. The building, located at 41 Cumberland St., was the city’s primary fire station from 1947 until the Public Safety building opened in 2004. The building is owned by Sappi, which allows the city to use it for municipal purposes. If the city ceases municipal use, the building reverts to the company.

The building has been used most recently by the Sewer Department, which is now moving to the new Public Services Facility. Mayor Mike Sanphy brought forward the idea of relocating the Fire Department’s call members to 41 Cumberland St.

Most councilors were opposed to the idea and no action was taken. Bryant on July 27 said no further discussion has been planned and that the next steps could come from the council or from Sanphy.

Bryant said because of the resignations, the council now has a new problem to address.

“The question is no longer, ‘where do you want to locate Fire/Police?'” he said. “The question is, ‘do you want to have Fire/Police?'”

Bryant said there “is no no-impact option.” Turcotte, though, said the department can manage fine with fewer Fire/Police members if it has to. Of the 2,500 fire calls in Westbrook since Jan. 1, Fire/Police members have responded to 80 of them.

“Our tactic or strategy doesn’t change depending on whether they’re coming or not,” Turcotte said.

Fire/Police members work on call and make $10-$15/hour, he said. If none respond to a call, police officers direct traffic. Fire/Police members are called for every fire call, but aren’t expected to respond.

“We don’t rely on them, and it’s not because they’re not valued, it’s because they have lives outside the department,” Turcotte said.

The Fire/Police and call members have been at odds with full-time members of the Fire Department, which was a factor in why a separate building was proposed.

“This isn’t an issue unique to Westbrook,” Bryant said. “It just boiled over because we have a mayor who tried to address the issue.”

Bryant said “the resignation piece raises the stakes,” though. Despite this,  he said the city can’t control how the career and call members interact with each other.

“Providing them with a greater sense of being welcome, we’ve had some control over,” he said. “The social and economic factors we can’t change.”

Turcotte has acknowledged the tension between the two groups, but said he thought the work itself was more important than the work environment.

“My stance is that if people are going to resign over not having their own building, they might not be in this for the right reasons,” he said.

The Fire Department is constantly trying to recruit new call and Fire/Police members, Turcotte said, but interest has been low. Because of the resignations, he said the department “will look to advertise in a more diversified way” in the hopes of hiring more people quickly.

Bryant said the Fire/Police division “is a significant resource … that we really don’t want to lose.” Turcotte agreed, but said all Fire Department members, career and call, need to focus on the importance of their work.

“We’re public servants,” Turcotte said. “At the end of the day regardless of what building we’re in, we have to serve the public and be team players.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

The former fire station at 41 Cumberland St. was proposed by Mayor Mike Sanphy to be used again as a station for call members, and when councilors disagreed a handful of call members resigned.

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