Allegations that the Thorndike Fire Department leadership is unprofessional and has endangered the lives of firefighters from other communities are having an incendiary effect on the small town and its volunteer-run department.
The allegations came in the form of a Jan. 23 letter sent by four Waldo County emergency response officials to the Thorndike Select Board and town residents. It detailed safety concerns and leadership problems with George Russell, the town’s 33-year-old former fire chief who stepped down to the position of assistant fire chief after he admitted stealing more than $5,000 from the fire department’s coffers in 2014.
“We will no longer turn a blind eye to this situation and will not put our members at risk under George’s leadership,” the letter stated. “[We] cannot support George due to his criminal history and lack of leadership. Please understand this is not intended to be a threat but a warning to help prevent injury, or worse, death of anyone due to a careless or inexperienced decision.”
The officials also said that Thorndike’s mutual aid partner communities want to dissolve that relationship because of their concerns.
The letter wasn’t widely released until last weekend. But once it was, it blindsided town firefighters.
Russell has resigned, and Fire Chief Bill Isbister, who has held that position only since the beginning of the year, said that he and most of the rest of the firefighters are planning to quit, too, unless two demands are met. They want Russell to be reinstated and they want the town to release the roughly $85,000 in the fire department’s truck and equipment replacement fund so they can get better equipment.
In Thorndike, which has almost 30 volunteer firefighters, Isbister and others maintain they are forced to beg the town to give them the money and equipment they need. One of their trucks is 30 years old and has more than 500,000 miles on it, the chief said, adding that the town budgets just $30,000 annually for the fire department.
“We’ve been fighting to release the money for five years now,” Isbister said. “They’ve got to replace the truck, or somebody’s going to die or get really hurt.”
‘Wake up call’
The letter needed to be sent, according to Bill Gillespie, president of the Waldo County Fire Chiefs Association. He said Monday that there is a real problem with integrity and leadership in the department, and he and others in the county wanted to let Thorndike officials know.