Oxford Fire members mutiny against chief/ Chief resigns, deputy named acting chief

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OXFORD —  Fire Department Deputy Chief David Heidrich has been appointed acting fire chief of the Oxford Fire Department.

Heidrich confirmed the action by Interim Town Manager Rebecca Lippincott, in a telephone interview with the Advertiser Democrat Wednesday morning, Dec. 7.

Former Fire Chief Wayne Jones, right, is pictured sitting next to former Town Manager Derik Goodine at a recent selectmen’s meeting moments after Goodine resigned unexpectantly.

“I’m hoping to make things better,” he said of his appointment. He has been a member of the department for about 30 years.

Lippincott said earlier in the day that she intended to appoint an acting chief.

“Given the fact it was a sudden resignation I had to get in touch with someone who is willing to serve as acting chief,” Lippincott told the Advertiser Democrat early Wednesday morning. She declined to disclose the person’s name at that time.

The action follows the sudden resignation of Fire Chief Wayne Jones, who announced his resignation effective Saturday, Dec. 31, in a one-sentence email to his department.

“We are greatly saddened by the Fire Chief’s resignation,” Lippincott said.

“I am in charge, and I will be appointing an acting fire chief,” Lippincott. “Until such time, I am confident  we have a very qualified fire department that is capable of serving the citizens of Oxford.”

Chief Jones has been unavailable for comment.

On Tuesday, Dec. 6, an unknown number of the Fire/Rescue Department members went public with the ongoing dissention within the department saying they had no chief.

“He needs to resign. As of last night we have no fire chief,” Lt. Mark Blaquiere told the Sun Media Group on Tuesday morning.

Jones was handed a two-page “Letter of No Confidence” from the Oxford Fire/Rescue Department at its monthly meeting Monday night, Dec. 5, requesting his resignation as of that night.

Blaquiere said reports that Jones’ office was “packed up” while he was on vacation last week were accurate but he did not know who did it nor was he involved in the action.

“All we know is that it happened,” he said.

Blaquiere said when Jones returned from vacation he complained about the action to department members. Blaquiere said he does not know if the chief keeps his office locked and he does not have a key to the office.

Blaquiere said there is no communication between the chief, who he said leaves memos on the memo board rather than talking to his department, refuses to help drive the equipment, which he should do as a “working” fire chief, and refuses to address safety issues, among other issues.

“We can do the job without him. He’s not our chief,” said Blaquiere.

Blaquiere said Tuesday the department will be run by senior members starting with the lieutenant, captain and deputy chief.

“We are not taking orders from him anymore. We don’t care if he sits in his office,” said Blaquiere.

No confidence

Lippincott, who was appointed last week to fill the vacancy created by the unexpected resignation of former Town Manager Derik Goodine last month, was at the monthly department meeting Monday night to introduce herself as the interim town manager and was also handed a copy of the letter, said Blaquiere.

According to the letter, dated Dec. 5, the officers and members of the Fire/Rescue Department have no confidence in the ability of Jones to lead the department.

“Since your arrival, you have demonstrated a lack of local knowledge and demonstrated poor communication skills with the officers and members of this department,” the letter states in part. “Chief Jones you have failed to demonstrate the ability to work within a call company department.”

The letter goes on to state that because of Jones’ leadership, the department continues to lose membership when the numbers are already “below acceptable standards.”

Blaquiere said there are 30 members of the department and, though no formal vote was taken, the feeling has been shared since Jones, 57, was hired in June 2015. He had retired as deputy fire chief in Westbrook, where he still lives,  and was a longtime firefighter when he applied for the Oxford job.

Blaquiere said department members have attempted to address the issue with selectmen – even meeting with them in executive session a month ago to discuss their concerns about the chief – but to no avail.

Selectmen Chairman Scott Owens said Tuesday afternoon he was unaware of the specifics of the situation.

“We’ll have to get involved as we get our facts. We can’t allow this to go on,” he said.

Owens said the town manager has the ability to fire members of the department, not the selectmen.

On Tuesday evening, Capt. Patty Hesse said she and Cordwell and fellow Capt. Paul Hewey were expected to meet Wednesday to discuss the next steps.

“As far as us following orders, probably depending on what it is,” Hesse said, adding that members will have to decide.

“Us three captains are now working together and are going to try to see what we can do to bring the department back together again,” she said. “Get the brotherhood and sisterhood back in the department, hopefully, because that’s really faltered, unfortunately.”

Unique situation

Bill St. Michel, the current fire chief in Durham and two-time past president of the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association, told the Advertiser Democrat on Tuesday, there is no protocol to handle a situation in which officers and department members refuse to recognize a chief’s authority.

He’s not aware of any similar situation ever happening in Maine.

The situation, he said, “could be very awkward in an emergency situation” because state law establishes that the fire chief is ultimately responsible for every fire scene. And employment law sets authority of the chief and of the department’s operation with the city manager.

“I would assume, and I would definitely hope, that everyone would act in the best interest of the citizens involved in an emergency situation,” St. Michel said, despite their differences over leadership.

Members of the department must work together when responding to an emergency, and best “address the issues after that,” he said.

“Ultimately, the responsibility to take action — corrective action or protective action — would lie with the manager or the selectmen because the chief is an employee of the town,” St. Michel said.

“It really sounds to me like the situation between the officers and the chief is not going to be resolved, so municipal leadership needs to take action and resolve it before it escalates any further than it has” in the interest of public safety, he said.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net

Executive Editor Judith Meyer contributed to this report.

 

Editor’s Note:  Last January, Oxford firefighter Pvt. Zac Creps and Lt. Mark Blaquiere came to the Advertiser Democrat requesting a story about the first “Letter of No Confidence.”  After investigating their main claim that Chief Wayne Jones did not have the requisite certification to run hazmat scenes and finding it not to be true, we declined to published the story, concerned that the issues were more about not getting the town manager to hire the former fire chief and less about Jones’ ability. They have continued to fill us in over the past year on their attempts to oust him.

A year ago

By A. M. Sheehan

Editor

This is the second attempt in a year to remove the fire chief. Members of the department issued another “Letter of No Confidence” signed by seven department officers that was given to Jones in January 2016. That letter cited a lack of local knowledge and communication and accused him of putting the firefighters in danger because he takes too long to make decisions.

At least six members of the department quit because they didn’t want to work under the chief, Oxford firefighter Pvt. Zac Creps told the Advertiser Democrat at the time.

The first letter of no confidence was written when firefighters expressed concern that their former chief – Scott Hunter, who is now a selectman – was not hired by then-Town Manager Michael Chammings.  The fire chief’s position was changed from part-time and elected to full-time and appointed at the 2014 annual town meeting.

Hunter, who was elected to the board of selectmen, was the firefighters’ choice to fill the appointed position, said Creps and Lt. Mark Blaquiere. In fact, a petition had circulated garnering more than 30 signatures and was presented to Chammings and the board of selectmen requesting Hunter continue as fire chief, they said.

Jones came with glowing recommendations from Michael W. Pardue, former director of public safety for the city of Westbrook, and William D. Baker, assistant city manager and former director of public safety for Westbrook, a friend and former colleague of Jones.

However, said Creps last January, things were not so rosy during Jone’s tenure in Westbrook. Creps claims he has spoken with a number of members of the Westbrook Fire Department rank and file and that they say the Oxford firefighters’ concerns are the same as those of Jones’ colleagues in Westbrook while he was deputy fire chief there.

“He does not communicate with his officers [in Oxford], he does not know the equipment,” added Blaquiere.

“He spends money like … here’s an example, he spent $575 for a smoking building for a department that has only two smokers,” said an outraged Blaquiere. “But we can’t get turnout gear that we’ve been asking for for months, or our hoses fixed.”

Blaquiere said one set of turnout gear was purchased and Jones bought four hose couplings “the other day – we need eight.”

Other examples of unnecessary spending, according to Creps and Blaquiere, include approximately $300 on strobe lights for LifeFlight even though the department already has strobe lights, about $400 for a hard suction hose, even though, they say, there are five extra hard suction hoses at north station, and $984 for a Class A dress uniform for himself.

“The Oxford Fire Department policy clearly states no one can wear the Class A uniform until they have served the department for a minimum of two years,” said Creps.

Jones says the information about the Class A uniform is completely inaccurate. With regard to the other purchases Jones said, “I made budgetary decisions with which certain members don’t agree and I can show justification for all the expenditures.”

Another example, they said, of wasting taxpayer dollars is the use of the full-size fire truck for everything non-fire related.

“If we make a lunch run, go on errands or go check north station [daily] we are told to take the big truck. We used to take the smaller vehicles but the chief says we have to take the big ones because that’s what they do in Westbrook,” they said.

Jones responded to that allegation saying, “the reason I have them do that is so that they are available and able to respond to any call no matter where they are.” He explained by taking the rigs, instead of a car or smaller vehicle, they will not waste time returning to the station to pick up a fire truck.

The firefighters said none of the issues they have brought to the chief since he started have been resolved although the chief said he has been working on their concerns.

Worse, and more of an issue, they said, is what they claim is his lack of ability to run incident scenes.

“The incident commander has to be able to effectively run the scene,” explained Blaquiere. “He needs to know what resources are needed for each type of call, what manpower is needed.”

Further, he needs to communicate with the homeowner and he doesn’t, they said.

They used a fire in fall 2015 on Rabbit Valley Road as an example.

“He never explained [to the homeowner] why we cut a hole in their roof, he never told them who they could call [for assistance] … .”

Jones was confused by this and said he most certainly communicated with the homeowner and has even spoken with him since then, asking him how he thought it went with the fire call. He said the homeowner said he was more than satisfied.

“There is no transparency and no communication with his officers,” iterated Creps.

Jones said he thinks their perception of a lack of communication may stem from the first month or so he was on the job.

“Junior firefighters would come to me with questions and I would answer them. I was still learning the department, the organization and the norms … everyone wanted an answer immediately and I would answer without running it by the officers first. They didn’t like that. I am trying not to do those things any more.”

According to Blaquiere, when Jones was presented with the Letter of No Confidence, he seemed surprised and told them he thought he was doing a good job. “And that’s all!”

So, they said, they then sent the letter to the selectmen and town manager.

Blaquiere said Chammings came to the next officers’ meeting and told them in no uncertain terms, “He said, ‘I hired this guy to do a job and that’s the way it’s going to be.'”

Jones’ recollection of the presentation of the letter varied in that he recalled listening to their concerns but being shocked at them.

“We had just had a fire at Keiser and I was darn proud of the organization … it was an outstanding operation [for] us and the other departments under mutual aid. I had been here about a month when that happened and it went off practically without a hitch and Keiser was right back in business.”

Jones said he thought some of their concerns were justified and he totally understood them.

“I came from a large organization [Westbrook] and I had an assistant. When I would go somewhere my assistant always knew where I was. I don’t have one here and I would just go. They wanted to know where I was, when I would return and that is totally legit. They are right.”

He said last January he was trying to let them know when he leaves for a training or meeting or to run an errand.

He said he was also working on communicating better with his officers.

With regard to the loss of personnel, Jones said in January there had been some members, who “have worked here very little,” who have left the organization.

Certification

Another major concern, according to the two, was Jones’ lack of hazmat certification.

The Code of Federal Regulations requires incident commanders to have hazardous materials certification and to renew it annually. Jones’ certificate is from 1996, they said. The town had nothing more recent on file for him.

Jones explained, “The town doesn’t have all my records, they are in notebooks.”

The notebooks, he said, are in boxes in his attic. When asked if he has the requisite 20 certificates indicating he has taken the mandated refresher course each year, he replied “not that many … in the course of my time being certified I have responded to calls and incidents and that counts towards training … [but] I have had a lot of refresher courses for hazmat.”

However, after investigating the lack of training allegations, the Advertiser Democrat obtained copies of all his training from Westbrook. The chief has completed the requisite training and more, according to the Code of Federal Regulations.

asheehan@sunmediagroup.net