The town of Thorndike is left with a shell of its fire department after nearly all firefighters from the town suddenly resigned Wednesday night during a heated Select Board meeting.
It was the first meeting after townspeople had seen a highly critical letter written by four Waldo County emergency response officials, who had accused the department of endangering other firefighters’ lives. At the Thorndike Town Office, voices boomed and passions ran high, and in the end Select Board members and firefighters were unable to find a way forward together.
“It was a one-way deal. There was no compromise,” an emotional Shawn Bristol, a 10-year veteran of the department, said through tears after the firefighters walked out of the meeting. “All but one person resigned. We are essentially, for now, disbanded.”
Prior to the meeting, members of the 28-person volunteer department, which is not run by the town of Thorndike, had made two requests from the town. They wanted the reinstatement as a firefighter of George Russell, the controversial former chief and de facto leader of the department who was singled out in the letter, and they wanted the release of roughly $85,000 from the department’s truck and equipment replacement fund.
Fire Chief Bill Isbister, who had held his position since the beginning of this year, had tendered his resignation earlier Wednesday.
Inside the building, confusion reigned as members of the Select Board and residents who attended the meeting tried to figure out what had just happened and what would happen next.
Unlike most other Waldo County communities, the Thorndike Fire Department is not a municipal fire department but an association. Firefighters vote for the chief and other officers, while town officials have control over the department’s funding and have veto power over the chief.
“I saw it coming,” Bob Carter, second selectman, said. “I was a [Maine Department of Transportation] supervisor for a lot of years. You give people enough rope, they’ll hang themselves.”
In a resignation letter handed to the Select Board, firefighters wrote that they were pulling the fire company’s personnel from the fire station immediately “due to outdated and unsafe equipment that the town of Thorndike [Selectmen] refuse to replace putting not only the firefighters’ lives at risk but the public as well.”
Russell and the others who signed the letter wrote that the department would be out of service and unable to protect the town, “causing huge delays when an emergency occurs.”
But that’s not the case, Carter said, adding that not every firefighter had quit and that the town still has mutual aid agreements with other communities.
Lauren Carter, a firefighter and emergency medical technician for the Thorndike Fire Department, said she was the last remaining member of the department.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to come to the meeting and have everyone behave the way they did.”
Tempers flared and the first selectman loudly used his gavel several times to try to restore order during the discussion of the Jan. 23 letter signed by Waldo County Fire Chiefs Association President Bill Gillespie, Waldo County Firefighters Association President Ken Clements, Waldo County Emergency Management Agency Director Dale Rowley and Waldo County Communications Center Director Owen Smith.
In it, the men detailed safety concerns and leadership problems with Russell, who had 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.”
Although many firefighters present Wednesday said they supported Russell and that the department had already corrected most of the problems cited by county officials, Carter, the second selectman, said that the town needed to do something in response to the letter.
“You have four entities like that, write a letter like that, it has a lot of teeth,” he said.
For awhile, it seemed as if some kind of compromise might be found, after April Turner, a member of the Freedom Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary, came forward and tried to work with both sides.
“We cannot afford to lose the Thorndike Fire Department,” she said. “If this whole company of men and women walk away, we are losing a huge asset to all of our towns.”
But even though her words were met with applause from the dozens of firefighters present, her efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
“I feel bad,” said Sheriff Jeff Trafton, who was attending the meeting as a Thorndike resident. “I thought compromise was going to come. I don’t know what happened. As a resident of the town, I think this is a good time to go over to a municipal department. It just gives the town more control. The town right now has very little power over the fire department.”