After a heated exchange between town officials and community members at the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen’s Tuesday, April 19 meeting, a motion to reconsider a decision that bars volunteer firefighters from washing personal vehicles at the station was defeated.
Citing liability concerns, Selectman Judy Colby, who formerly voted in favor of amending town policy to allow the long-standing tradition to continue, said she was inclined to change her previous support.
Colby joined Selectmen Judy Flanagan and David Cherry to defeat the motion to reconsider in a 3-2 vote; Chair Ben Rines and Selectman Jeff Slack were in favor, saying the decision to bar firefighters from washing personal vehicles at the station should be reversed.
Amending town policy to allow firefighters to wash vehicles at the station will again be brought before the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen. If a waiver releasing the town from liability claims is possible, Colby said she would support the amendment, giving the board of selectmen the majority it needs to reverse the decision.
If the decision is not reversed, Rines encouraged the fire department to circulate a petition to put the issue before voters at the annual town meeting by referendum in June.
On April 5, selectmen were informed by Wiscasset Fire Chief T.J. Merry that the fire department had been told firefighters could not wash their personal vehicles at the station.
Wiscasset’s guidelines for use of town property and equipment prohibited the decades-long practice; Town Manager Marian Anderson informed the fire department the tradition would have to end.
A motion to override the policy and allow the fire department’s long-standing tradition to continue was defeated April 5 in a 3-2 vote, with Rines, Flanagan, and Cherry opposed.
After attending a Wiscasset Fire Department business meeting, Rines said it was a vote he would like to change. With the recruitment and retention issues experienced by volunteer emergency services across the nation, the tradition is important to maintaining the volunteer service, Rines said.
“Washing vehicles is not an expense to the town and it’s valuable to have firefighters in the building,” Rines said. “We’re on the verge of losing our ambulance service; we don’t want to lose our fire department too.”
The Wiscasset Ambulance Service’s proposed 2016-2017 budget transforms the department from a volunteer service, where members receive modest on-call wages, to a fully staffed department with hourly wages paid 24/7.
The issue of washing vehicles at the fire station surfaced following an incident about a month ago when Wiscasset’s Fire Truck 1, a red pickup truck, was used for a private purpose. Members of the department used the truck to help an elderly, handicapped 50-year veteran of the department move from his home in Edgecomb to his new home in Topsham, Merry said.
Merry was unaware the truck was borrowed from the station for that purpose, but passionately supported the officers of the department when the incident was questioned by Colby. “It happened overnight,” Merry said. “People made a heartfelt decision that they felt was right.”
According to Merry, he sent an email to his officers saying they were allowed to fill the personal vehicles used to help the individual move from the town-owned gas tank. The email landed on Anderson’s desk, and the policy prohibiting private use of town equipment became a topic of discussion.
The email was a mistake, but no member of the department filled their vehicles from the town gas tank, Merry said. “I own that email,” Merry said, “but it should not have led to this hoorah.”
Since the April 5 vote, there has been a flurry of Facebook activity condemning the decision of selectmen. “They made us sound like we were abhorrent, evil people,” Colby said. “We’re just looking out for the best interest of the town.”
According to legal opinions from the Maine Municipal Association and the town attorney, allowing firefighters to wash personal vehicles at the station opens the town up to potential liability claims.
About a year ago, Anderson informed the department that it would have to stop another long-running practice, that of filling community members’ swimming pools, due to liability issues and the $25 donations collected for the fire department’s association.
According to Merry, he was told by Anderson that the decision to no longer allow the fire department to fill swimming pools came from selectmen.
“The two issues are apples and oranges,” said Peter Rines, a certificate program manager with the Maine Fire Service Institute. According to Peter Rines, if certain standards are met and filling pools is a direction from the fire chief, the practice counts as a training exercise.
If the collection of donations for the association is a concern, a warrant article could be created asking the town to allow the association to receive the donations, modeled after the town’s arrangement with the snowmobile club, Ben Rines said.
“Someone’s on a witch hunt,” resident Lewis Savage said to selectmen. Savage presented Merry with a bucket, hose, soap, and sponge at the meeting, saying the only town equipment now needed to wash vehicles at the station would be the water hook-up.