Mass. Firefighters Fight Blazes Despite Loss of Apparatus, Chief

April 30, 2013
Sturbridge Police Chief and Acting Fire Chief Thomas J. Ford III said four pieces of apparatus were out of service for maintenance last week during back-to-back blazes.

Four fire department vehicles were out of commission Friday, on the same day that the Fire Department fought back-to-back blazes in town, in the same week the fire chief was placed on paid administrative leave and a new acting fire chief named, and in the same month a scathing, 166-page assessment cited the Fire Department for inadequate maintenance of its trucks.

Police Chief and Acting Fire Chief Thomas J. Ford III confirmed Saturday afternoon that four fire department pieces of apparatus were out of commission Friday, the same day that the fire department fought back-to-back blazes in town.

Fire Chief Leonard E. Senecal, was placed on paid administrative leave effective 4 p.m. Monday, until further notice, after a consultant's highly critical review of his management practices.

"At one point this morning (Saturday morning), there were four pieces of apparatus that were taken out of service, temporarily or for longer term," Chief Ford said.

Chief Ford said all the apparatus are being looked at and are being repaired.

"Some involve brakes, some involve overheating, some involve structural vehicle issues," Chief Ford said. "There's one of them that was having difficulty with power to the engine, as far as sputtering and spitting and unable to run quickly."

Chief Ford said Tanker 1 has the brake problems. He said he believes it is the same vehicle that Mendon Police and Fire Chief Ernest Horn cited in his assessment as having a "significant grease leak" that had contaminated the truck's braking abilities. On April 16, Mr. Horn told selectmen that it is possible that Tanker 1 would not be able to stop if traveling at high speed on Interstate 84 or the Massachusetts Turnpike.

"It's been repaired but it's being tested" to make sure the repairs have taken, Chief Ford said.

Chief Ford said the Fire Department's ladder truck has "front and rear suspension issues" and had to be taken to Ballard Springs in Worcester to be repaired. The ladder truck is still out of commission, as of Friday afternoon, Chief Ford said.

Engine 2 has the overheating problem and Engine 3 was sputtering and having difficulty operating, Chief Ford said.

With the exception of the ladder truck (which was taken out of commission an hour before the first of Friday's two fire calls), the three other fire vehicles were taken out at their respective fire scenes, Chief Ford said.

Chief Ford said he is still looking into whether the vehicles' maintenance issues hindered firefighting efforts on Friday at 190 Podunk Road and 215 Shepard Road.

Chief Ford said the cause of fire at Podunk Road is of an "undetermined nature" but does not appear to be suspicious. However, the Shepard Road fire is "suspicious" and appears "intentionally set" and the investigation is ongoing, he said.

The independent, 166-page assessment that has disgraced the Fire Department and was responsible for the fire chief being placed on paid administrative leave is not the first time in recent years that the Fire Department received poor grades.

In 2010, Finance Committee members Patricia Affenito and Mary E. Redetzke (who is currently on the Selectman and Government Service Study Committee) conducted an extensive and unflattering assessment of the Fire Department, which found no maintenance records for equipment and raised questions on how overtime was being managed, Ms. Redeztke said.

"We did the study. We put it out there," Ms. Redetzke said. "Because we were not professionals, our study was not taken seriously."

The Finance Committee's assessment was given to the selectmen, but no action was ever taken. It was only brought up again by Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Thomas R. Creamer when the latest report done by an "expert" came up with many of the same conclusions - and some even worse - with more details and material to back up the findings.

With the mission statement "to make delivery of town services more efficient and less costly while improving quality for our citizens," the government service study committee commissioned Chief Horn to assess the Fire Department at a cost of $3,000.

Mr. Horn's assessment found the fire department "operating in a dangerous state of disrepair" and "significant course changes are urgently needed." In addition, the report characterized Chief Senecal as amiable and experienced in firefighting techniques but "autocratic" in management style, unwilling to consider the input of employees.

On Nov. 30, members of the government service study committee visited Chief Horn in Mendon, because Mendon had consolidated its public safety and the committee wanted to see how it worked, said Selectman and Government Service Study Committee member Priscilla C. Gimas.

Impressed with the camaraderie of the Mendon Safety Complex and Chief Horn's expertise regarding how he changed the departments to run more efficiently, the committee discussed with Chief Horn the possibility of his conducting an evaluation of the Sturbridge Fire Department.

"We started with the Fire Department because the cost of overtime has been questioned several times by the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen," Ms. Gimas said. "We were interested in seeing if we could reduce this cost without compromising services to our residents."

Prior to Chief Horn's assessment, Chief Senecal was in agreement that his department needs better organization in order to run more efficiently, Ms. Gimas said.

In a 5-0 vote, the Board of Selectmen on Dec. 28 gave its support, and authorized the request for a reserve fund transfer in the amount of $3,000 for the use of a consultant to review the fire department as outlined in the Dec. 3 proposal drafted by Chief Horn, serving under the Municipal Consultants of New England of Mendon.

And, the assessments are not going to stop there.

"The Police Department will also be examined later this year," Ms. Gimas said. "I do not know if it will be Chief Horn because that is something the GSSC will examine and make recommendations to the Board of Selectmen."

Contact Craig S. Semon at [email protected]

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