Fire Dept. divisions combined

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Months after the City Council declined allowing the former fire station at 41 Cumberland St. to be used by Fire/Police, the Fire Department has struggled to recruit new volunteers. 

WESTBROOK — In the three months since most of the Fire/Police members resigned, the Fire Department has merged the division with its call company.

With only three members remaining in the Fire/Police division, Chief Andrew Turcotte said call company members have been filling in as needed. Members of the Fire/Police division are call personnel who act in supporting roles for the department by directing traffic and performing crowd control.

“The call company has stepped up because they’re cross-trained, so our Fire/Police team is robust,” Turcotte said. “Fire/Police and the call company have really merged together.”

Six of the 10 Fire/Police members, including the captain and lieutenant, resigned in July. Two more have resigned since then and one call company member moved over to Fire/Police before the two divisions merged.

The resignations followed the City Council’s inaction on July 20 to designate a separate building for Fire/Police and 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 with the stipulation that if the city ceases municipal use the building reverts to the company. The building had been used most recently by the Sewer Department, which moved to the new Public Services Facility in October. 

Mayor Mike Sanphy brought forward the idea of relocating the Fire Department’s call members to 41 Cumberland St., but most councilors were opposed to the idea and no action was taken. Sanphy on Tuesday said the Sewer Department is still storing a few pieces of equipment at 41 Cumberland St. and that the city will likely store other items there as well.

Sanphy said he doesn’t want to see the building revert to Sappi and that the city will continue to use it for storage until a better idea is proposed.

“I’d like to see the best use for it and find something that’s good for the city and for taxpayers,” Sanphy said.

Fire/Police members in July said they had been counting on the building being given to them to use. This, coupled with what they called disrespect within the Fire Department, led to their resignations. Turcotte in August refuted the claims of disrespect and said the department wouldn’t be impacted by the resignations.

On Monday Turcotte said the impact hasn’t been huge, but that the department has been actively recruiting new members. He said it’s been difficult to find interested people.

“It’s a challenge,” Turcotte said. “Volunteerism in general is tough because people don’t want to lend their time.” 

Fire/Police members have initial training when they start and then have ongoing monthly training. According to Turcotte, they respond to approximately 150 calls each year and aren’t expected to be available for every call.

Sanphy, a former call company captain, said Fire/Police members are “invaluable” to the department, but that he understands where the feelings of disrespect came from.

“Anytime there’s two groups there’s friction,” he said. “It’s a way of life. A lot of feelings were hurt and that’s hard to mend, but hopefully we can.”

Turcotte said he’s “had very candid conversations” with his staff about respecting each other. He said he emphasizes unity within the department.

“We may have different divisions, but we’re one fire department,” he said. “We recognize the challenges each division faces and we respect the unique characteristics of each division, but at the end of the day we’re one department.”

Soon being added to the department are eight new career firefighters whose positions are being funded through a grant. When the council discussed 41 Cumberland St. in July, it also accepted a $962,000 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

The eight positions will be funded for three years. Turcotte said 40 people applied for the positions and eight verbal offers were made last week. Once written offers have been signed, the new firefighters will begin six weeks of training and then join the department.

Sanphy said as the department moves forward with new members, whether career, call, or Fire/Police, he hopes they all realize the value each brings to the department and the community.

“I hope we can resolve these issues and work as a team,” Sanphy said. “I’m optimistic we can work together again.”

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

Months after the City Council declined allowing the former fire station at 41 Cumberland St. to be used by Fire/Police, the Fire Department has struggled to recruit new volunteers. 

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