Etna department temporarily shut down

Updated: 10-18-2007 01:04:55 PM

Courtesy of the Bangor Daily News

ETNA, Maine-- The recent decision to temporarily shut down the town's fire department has left many residents concerned about community safety.

The telephone did not stop ringing on Wednesday at Selectman Walter Gibbons' house, he said. The concerned residents at the other end of the phone line were unhappy with the Board of Selectmen's action and the vulnerable state of the community, he said.

"This is the worst decision this board has ever made," Gibbons said, noting that he was absent from Monday night's meeting during which the temporary shut down was approved.

Three of the town's five selectmen cited a history of personnel issues with the department, which led to their vote Monday to close down the approximately 15-member squad. Voting were LeRoy Hall, Robert Tasker and Vicky Donaldson. Gibbons and Joe Garcia were not present.

The most recent controversy involved video recordings filmed by Fire Chief Rick Goodell while he was en route to emergency calls. Goodell said he recorded his drive to emergency scenes on a personal camera mounted on the dashboard of his personal vehicle. He then posted the footage, captured in September and October, on YouTube, a popular global sharing Web site.

Goodell said the videos served as a teaching tool, but Selectman Hall said the board had requested that emergency scenes and the town's name not be shown in any video. The town name and the fire department's Web address do appear on the videos, Goodell acknowledged Tuesday.

When asked Tuesday why the board did not discipline just the chief rather than shut the department down, Hall said there was no suitable replacement for Goodell.

Newport and Carmel departments will cover the town's fire and rescue calls until the issue is resolved, Goodell said.

While many residents Wednesday questioned the town's obligation to provide emergency services, there is no law requiring towns to provide fire protection, said Michael Starn, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association.

When asked if the town could be found liable if an Etna home is destroyed by fire during the two-week suspension, Starn said he did not "know any case law that would tell us anything about town liability.

"There are many protections built into the Maine Tort Claims Act, which provide protections for government officials and decision-making bodies," Starn said.

The department is municipally run and fully funded by the town, Town Manager Evelyn Serval said on Wednesday. Unlike volunteer departments or fire associations, Etna firefighters are not required to raise funds for operational costs or equipment, she said. Each firefighter and rescue responder receives $5 per emergency run, while the chief is paid a $2,000 annual stipend, she said.

The town department responded to 174 fire and rescue calls from January to September of this year, said Jim Ryan, director of the Penobscot Regional Communication Center. Fifty-eight calls were for fires, while the remaining 116 were for rescue services, he said. Etna does have a mutual aid agreement with Stetson and Carmel, so when a general fire alarm is placed, all three departments immediately respond, Ryan said.

Etna provides and receives mutual aid, Serval said, but does not charge area communities for the services. Some controversy surrounds the mutual aid agreements because some townspeople feel Etna should charge for its services in other communities, she said.

Newport and Carmel "have graciously agreed to provide service to our townspeople without a cost attached" during the two-week suspension, Serval said. "After two weeks that may be different and we would renegotiate."

The temporary loss of the Etna department affects residents far beyond town lines.

Etna firefighters on Tuesday highlighted their frequent calls to accident scenes on Interstate 95. The town owns extrication equipment, which is frequently used for the highway wrecks.

The two sites with the highest crash rates on I-95 between Newport and Sherman are stretches of highway in Bangor and the Etna-Carmel area, said Lt. Wesley Hussey of the Maine State Police. Without Etna's response, neighboring Newport is the nearest department with extrication equipment, Ryan said.

"In the situation where obviously someone is trapped, we would like to get the closest set of Jaws [of Life] and closest rescue," Hussey said.

Residents also have questioned how the change will affect homeowners insurance, Gibbons said.

The temporary two-week suspension would not have an immediate affect on bills because insurance carriers would not reassess rates for such a short period of time, said Judith Shaw, the deputy superintendent of the state's Bureau of Insurance.

Homeowners insurance is categorized in different protective classes with class 10 being the most expensive. Most Etna homeowners are currently listed in classes nine or 10 because of its rural location, Shaw said. If the department closure is permanent, then some of the class nine homes may move to class 10 because they are farther from fire protection, but the impact should not be significant, she said.

The selectmen will meet at 6 p.m. Monday at the town office to seek a resolution. The issue was initially scheduled for an executive session, but Gibbons said he thinks the whole town should be involved, and he will rally for an open meeting.

The board "still needs to come to a conclusion within a two-week timeframe because it is not fair for townspeople not to know how we will protect their homes and their lives," Serval said Wednesday.

Republished with permission of the Bangor Daily News.