Owls Head seeks to quell fire department turmoil

Posted July 22, 2013, at 8:10 p.m.

OWLS HEAD, Maine — The town’s fire chief said he wants to continue in the post he has held for 35 years, but is discouraged by criticisms of his department and controversy swirling around the volunteer organization.

A selectman, who also sits on the board that oversees the fire department, said she thinks the issue boils down to a personality dispute. She and another selectman also said Monday that a state safety review conducted last week found no significant problems.

The discord began earlier this year when Assistant Fire Chief Bruce Colson filed a grievance against Chief Frank Ross. Then the chief, in turn, filed a grievance against the assistant. The specific nature of those grievances has not been released publicly but Colson said it was related to concerns about the chief’s job performance.

“We have heard complaints from all corners but they don’t want to come out and speak on their own behalf, so I am,” Colson said.

He would not go into further details.

Selectman Linda Post said Ross then complained that Colson was spreading false information about his operation of the department.

In addition, the owner of a commercial garage that was destroyed by fire on Feb. 10 publicly questioned whether the chief adequately fought the blaze. At a June 17 selectmen’s meeting, garage owner Cecil Fogg said the board should take a long hard look at whether Ross was still qualified to be chief.

Ross called criticism of the way that fire was fought Monday morning quarterbacking. He said the building was a large one with a lot of open space and considerable fuel inside.

He pointed out that firefighters from Rockland and South Thomaston departments also responded and tried their best to extinguish the fire.

The selectmen voted on June 30 to have someone from the Maine Department of Labor conduct an audit of the fire department’s practices. Post said the audit, which was conducted last week, reviewed safety measures for the department’s crews. The town has yet to receive a written report from the state, she said.

The findings from that review will not be released by the state, according to Maine Department of Labor Communications Director Julie Rabinowitz. She said that such records maintained by the state are confidential by law. Once a report is provided to the town, she said, it would be up to local officials to decide whether to release the information publicly.

While the final report has not been completed, Selectman Richard Carver, who went along on the review, said Monday that the state auditors found no significant deficiencies and found a lot they liked. He said the reviewers were impressed with safety details such as small poles on the floor that allow people backing up firetrucks to know where to stop. The minor problems they found included some electrical cords that were deficient and a firefighter’s hat that was in need of replacement, Carver said.

Ross, who was also present during the review, agreed Monday that nothing significant was found to be lacking with the department.

Selectmen also will include a warrant article for the annual town meeting — scheduled for Aug. 26 — to hire an independent firm to conduct an audit of the department. Post said selectmen are placing $3,800 in the proposed 2013-2014 budget to pay for the review. This review will be more comprehensive and go into the structure of the department rather than just safety issues, she said.

The fire chief said he welcomes a thorough look at the department by an outside, independent party.

A fire department board of directors annually appoints the fire chief, deputy chief and assistant chief. The board consists of the town’s three selectmen and four other members of the fire department. The board is expected to make its next appointments sometime after the annual town meeting — likely in September.

Post said she believes the discontent within the department is simply personal. She said there are some disgruntled people but that she is happy with the work done by the chief.

The chief said he would like to continue in the position.

“I hope I will have a lot of support,” he said.

He said he was discouraged by the criticism of the way the Feb. 10 fire was fought and by the grievance but that he is proud of the work of the department.

The fire department’s board of directors also will hold a hearing on Ross’ complaint against Colson but that has not been scheduled, Post said. Carver said a hearing for Colson was scheduled last month but then postponed. He said he hopes the matter will be dropped.

Ross declined to discuss the grievance he has filed against Colson.

Colson did not immediately return a message left for him Monday afternoon.

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