N.H. Residents, Department at Odds Over Board's Power

June 24, 2013
Some say the Nelson selectman have gone too far in trying to control the fire department.

June 23--NELSON -- The town needs a new fire chief.

For almost two months the fire department, neighboring fire departments and community have been asking the selectmen to fill the chief vacancy at the volunteer fire department. But selectmen are looking for more than just a chief; they recently added two additional deputy chief positions and tacked on new fire training certifications.

In 2001, the town voted to allow the selectmen to appoint a fire chief. The fire department is at odds with the selectmen's decision to appoint two new deputies because the department has its own polices and procedures, which say all chain-of-command decisions are made by the chief.

Tension simmered during a two-hour meeting Thursday night at the town hall between the selectmen, firefighters, neighboring fire departments and community members over the future of the Nelson Fire Department.

Some say the selectman have gone too far in trying to control the fire department, while others say the issue needs to resolved quickly for the safety of the community.

Since Nelson Fire Chief Richard Lothrop retired on April 30 after more than 28 years of service, the department has been without a leader. The selectmen didn't appoint an acting chief during the search, instead opting to keep everyone's duties the same.

Since Lothrop's retirement, selectmen developed new standards and licensing requirements for the town's fire chief and have created two additional deputy chief positions, one for administration management and the other for operations management, which also requires licensing.

The chairman of the board of selectmen, David Upton, said the change came when the board met with the chief of the N.H. Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services. The bureau chief, Dennis Rosolen, advised town officials to require that the new chief have at least basic fire and rescue certifications.

This prompted the selectmen to draw up new job descriptions. At first the selectmen set the bar high, requiring job applicants to have a series of certifications, but have modified the requirements in recent weeks to require a basic "firefighter one" certification, which requires more than 200 hours of training.

During the meeting, Ron O'Keefe, a health and safety adviser for the town's liability insurance, said fire service is a risky job and that times have changed in firefighting. O'Keefe and Upton said in order to assure the safest and most efficient service, while reducing potential town liability, new department members should be trained and certified.

"When delivering safety and health services, you have to do it right," Upton said. "You can't drive without a license," he said.

Selectmen would not comment as to whether or not the recent conviction of Joseph Andrews, a former fire department member, who posed as an EMT at an emergency scene when he was not a licensed EMT, factored into the new certification requirements. Andrews' wife, Susan, awaits trial in August for similar accusations.

Residents argued that some of the volunteers for the department have years of experience and already know what they're doing. And since it's an unpaid, volunteer department, they say it's ridiculous to expect the members to pay for and spend hundreds of hours of their time training.

Members of the Nelson Fire Department said during the meeting that they're all receptive to training and getting certifications, but it's costly and time consuming.

During the meeting, resident John "Jack" R. Bradshaw, said he'd love to see Deputy Fire Chief Bud French, who has volunteered for the department for about 30 years, become chief and disagreed with the way the selectmen were handling fire department business.

"The selectmen made a mistake when they dreamed up these sets of conditions," he said during the meeting. "It's a horrible case of the selectmen trying to micro manage the fire department," he said, adding that none of the selectmen have served on a fire department before.

"I'm in favor of having a chief appointed and then letting the chief organize the department," Bradshaw said.

French, who does not have a "firefighter one" certification, said he applied for the chief position, but refused to sign documents that allowed the selectmen to appoint deputy chiefs. "They can pick the chief, but that's it," French said. "That's the biggest stumbling block," he said. "We just need a leader."

Southwestern N.H. District Fire Mutual Aid Chief Philip Tirrell, spoke during the meeting. He said the town should fill the chief position as soon as possible so the department can get things into place and concentrate on the community's safety.

He said across the mutual aid system in New Hampshire and Vermont, there are chiefs that have years of experience and no certifications and chiefs with less experience and certifications, but despite their differences, all of the fire departments work together to help each other and keep the communities safe.

"It's important to communicate," Tirrell said.

At the end of the meeting Upton announced the town would pay for the volunteers to get "firefighter one" certifications, although he did not have any further details as to how the town would go about financing and facilitating the training. He said selectmen were still discussing the matter.

No decisions about a new chief were reached during the meeting and selectmen said they would take everything discussed under advisement.

Danielle Rivard can be reached at [email protected] or 352-1234 extension 1435. Follow her on Twitter @DRivardKS.

Copyright 2013 - The Keene Sentinel, N.H.

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