Two weeks ago, all but one of the members of the Thorndike Fire Department quit in the middle of a heated Select Board meeting, leaving the agency a shell of itself and the small community in tumult.
That was then. Things are already changing for the beleaguered department in a good way, according to local officials. There’s even a new fire chief: John Levers, who had been the assistant fire chief for Thorndike until he left the department in June 2018.
“I’ve got to make sure this town has some kind of fire protection,” he said. “And what I’ve been hearing in town is that everyone’s glad the department’s getting a fresh start.”
To him, the fresh start looks like the six new fully trained members who have joined the department since Feb. 20, when 27 firefighters resigned. They have joined Levers and his fiancee, Lauren Carter, a firefighter and emergency medical technician who was the only person not to step down and walk out of that night’s Select Board meeting.
Levers said he and the others have been busy getting the fire house in order, getting paperwork “up to snuff,” taking stock of equipment and rebuilding frayed ties with Thorndike’s mutual aid partner committees.
As that happens, Thorndike officials are drafting an ordinance to ask townspeople to make the department a municipal one rather than an incorporated one. That would give the town more control over it, which local officials said they hope will let them avoid similar turmoil in the future.
Residents will vote on the proposed ordinance at Thorndike’s annual town meeting, scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, March 16, at the town office.
“It’s been a learning curve,” Selectman Bob Carter said.
The troubles with the 900-person town’s fire department came to a head in January, when four Waldo County emergency response officials sent a letter to the Select Board that alleged the department’s leadership is unprofessional in ways that endangered the lives of firefighters from other communities.
The letter came as a shock to town officials, Carter said, adding that after receiving it, they knew they had to do something. It detailed safety concerns and leadership problems with George Russell, the town’s 33-year-old former fire chief.
County officials also said that Thorndike’s mutual aid partner communities wanted to dissolve that relationship because of safety concerns.
Russell, who pleaded guilty in 2015 to stealing more than $5,000 from the fire department, had stepped down at that time to the position of assistant fire chief. He paid back the money, served a short jail sentence and had worked to rehabilitate his reputation, he told the BDN in February, denying the county officials’ claims that he was a bad leader without integrity.
“The letter is like a friggin’ stab in the back,” he said then. “It basically humiliated me and destroyed my reputation I’ve been working so hard on for the past five years.”
Still, after the town received it, he stepped down, followed by Fire Chief Bill Isbister. The rest of the fire department told the community they would, too, unless two requests were met. The firefighters wanted the town to reinstate Russell and to release the roughly $85,000 they said was in the department’s truck and replacement fund.
But that didn’t happen, and they did resign. Carter, the selectman, said that he and the other officials disagreed with the former firefighters’ claim that the town did not provide the department with adequate financial support.
“The fire department has always come to us with their budget for the year,” he said. “Anything from toilet paper to turnout gear, we always said yes. We never said no.”
He said that generally he believes that regionalizing fire services makes a lot of sense for small, rural communities like Thorndike, which cannot afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to purchase new fire trucks and ambulances.
“Which is why Waldo County has a great mutual aid compact,” Levers said.
In terms of the department’s existing equipment, the chief said that in the past two weeks, area fire chiefs have checked it out and found it in good condition. The town has a nearly 30-year pumper truck but it still works well, Levers said.
“We have the equipment. The equipment works,” he said. “Yes, everyone would like a new truck, but why am I going to replace a truck that pumps like it’s brand new?”
In general, he figures the fire department’s future seems hopeful.
“The Sunday night after the Select Board meeting, we had a meeting of all the mutual aid fire chiefs in the area,” Levers said. “The vibe I got from every one of them is that it’s a step in the right direction for Thorndike. We have a long road ahead of us to rebuild, but everyone seems to feel a lot safer when they’re responding to Thorndike now.”