Former Fire Chief Offers Opinion
By: Alex Scofield
Former Bourne Fire Chief Steven C. Philbrick said he has watched developments that have unfolded within the department over the last year with “much heartache.”
Mr. Philbrick, who served as the town’s fire chief from 1992 until 2000, said that he was reluctant to weigh in on the various controversies that have plagued the department, which included wrangling over a reduced-price animal clinic at the Sagamore Beach Fire Station and allegations of drug abuse against former lieutenant Kelli J. Weeks.
Recently, Interim Bourne Fire & Rescue Department Chief Daniel J. Doucette has been accused of sexual harassment by a female member of the fire department’s Union, Professional Firefighters of Bourne Local 1717, an issue that Associate Town Counsel Charles Sabbat has been pegged to investigate. Now, though, as the town attempts to move on from a difficult year, Mr. Philbrick said he hopes he and the town’s three other surviving former fire chiefs can lend their expertise.
Mr. Philbrick sent a letter to Town Administrator Thomas M. Guerino last week requesting that he organize a workshop with Mr. Philbrick, and former chiefs Charles W. Kleuber, Robert W. Eldridge, and Martin J. Jordan. Mr. Philbrick said he was particularly interested in providing insight as to the most effective process for choosing a permanent fire chief.
“I think you have a unique opportunity to obtain opinions and information about this from the four living former fire chiefs who served the town and the Bourne Fire Department for 25 years,” he wrote to Mr. Guerino. “I think it might be practical to set a meeting with all of us to get our input on this issue.”
He said he has yet to hear back from Mr. Guerino regarding the offer, but said he would be sharing his opinions from now on, either way.
“If they don’t want to sit down and talk with us formally, I’m still going to tell them what I think,” he said.
The town is currently weighing whether it wishes to use the civil service process to select a new chief, or to ask Town Meeting voters to allow them to conduct their own search with a private firm.
Mr. Guerino has also received permission from the Civil Service Commission to advertise for a lateral transfer of a chief from another civil service fire department.
Mr. Philbrick, like each of the other three former fire chiefs, was appointed to his post via the civil service process, and said he believed the town should follow the same route in hiring its next permanent fire chief.
In his letter to Mr. Guerino, Mr. Philbrick suggested, for the long term, that the town should open promotional exams to every member of its department every two years, so there would be a list of eligible candidates at the ready whenever there is a vacancy for a position, whether it be for chief, deputy chief, or lieutenant.
Mr. Philbrick said the interim tag that has preceded the titles of current Chief Daniel J. Doucette, and before him, David Kingsbury, has made it difficult for both men to fully take control of their department.
He said he had the “utmost confidence” in Interim Chief Doucette and hoped he could be reconsidered for a permanent appointment.
Regardless of who filled the post, though, Mr. Philbrick said the town needs to find a qualified candidate to fill the post permanently as soon as possible.
He also said that the town needs to reconsider the ranking structure within the fire department in order to help give the chief much-needed administrative support.
Many observers of the fire department’s recent struggles, including Chairman of the Board of Selectmen John A. Ford Jr., have suggested that many of its problems stem from the fact that the chief is the only staff member, aside from office personnel, who is not a member of Professional Firefighters of Bourne Local 1717.
Mr. Philbrick suggested that three of the department’s four deputy chief posts could, instead, be designated as captains and the remaining deputy chief could be taken out of the union and asked to share some of the chief’s administrative duties.
He noted that as the fire chief is not a member of the union, he can often become isolated at the top of the department, or worse, perceived by the union as a puppet for the town.
“You’re kind of like the Lone Ranger,” he said. “Sometimes the only person on your side is the secretary.”
Mr. Philbrick was no stranger to controversy during his eight years as the town’s fire chief. He was dismissed by the board of selectmen in March of 2000 after being suspended, with pay, in January of that year.
At that time, the board found five major reasons for dismissing Mr. Philbrick: violation of his contract, failure to safeguard town equipment, illegally transferring a shotgun, illegally transferring a handgun, and being intoxicated while on call and responsible for the fire department. However, Mr. Philbrick said the issues that Interim Chief Doucette has had to deal with in the last year trump even what he faced.
“Honestly, what I went though pales in comparison,” he said. “I wanted to give [Interim Chief Doucette] some advice, but I was at a loss as to what to tell him.”
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