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.
It also was signed by Waldo County Firefighters Association President Ken Clements, Waldo County Emergency Management Agency Director Dale Rowley and Waldo County Communications Center Director Owen Smith.
“Unfortunately, we’re in an industry where people are killed if they’re careless,” said Gillespie, who is also the fire chief in Liberty. “We don’t want inexperienced leadership putting our firefighters in harm’s way.”
His concerns have been growing for several years, and although they seem to have started with Russell, they don’t stop there. Gillespie said that county firefighters were endangered last summer while fighting a house fire on Palmer Road in Thorndike because the department had malfunctioning equipment and lack of training. Firefighters had entered the house with an attack line that did not work properly, among other cascading errors, according to the fire chief.
“The Palmer Road fire was a wakeup call,” Gillespie said. “So many things were done wrong.”
A tape of radio traffic from the day of the fire by the Waldo County Communications Center revealed a scene that was chaotic at best, he said.
“There was no single command and too many people talking,” he said. “On that call, there were so many people making decisions and screaming out orders, it became very confusing. There was a large amount of traffic over the radio by multiple people asking for the same thing. Dispatch was overwhelmed.”
‘A stab in the back’
Gillespie is still waiting to find out what will happen next. So is Larry Ward, the first selectman, who said that the matter may be addressed at Wednesday night’s regular Select Board meeting.
“I think it’s fairly obvious that we need to make some changes in the Thorndike Fire Department,” Ward said. “You have to admire these gentlemen for having the fortitude to write the letter. They felt this was an issue they had to take some action on, and thank goodness for that.”
Thorndike’s fire department is set up differently than the departments in most other towns in Waldo County, which are run by the municipality. In those departments, the town owns the equipment and the chief is either appointed by town officials or elected by residents. But in Thorndike, the fire department is an association, and firefighters vote for the chief and the other officers. To Gillespie, that’s a problem.
“Being the chief should not be a popularity contest. The chief should be the most qualified person there is,” he said. “[Russell] doesn’t have any experience or knowledge, not to mention his criminal background. You have to have integrity to do this job.”
For his part, Russell adamantly denies the charges that he is a bad leader without integrity. He said he made a mistake when he took the money from the fire department, which he said he did to pay for food and other bills during a tough custody battle. But he paid it back, served a short jail sentence and has been working to rehabilitate his reputation, he said.
“The letter is like a friggin’ stab in the back … it basically humiliated me and destroyed my reputation I’ve been working so hard on for the past five years,” he said. “I’ve just had it. I’m done being bullied. I’m not going to be the lovey-dovey teddy bear I used to be. They’ve gone over the limit. No more Mr. Nice Guy.”
Russell said he expects Thorndike firefighters to make a stand, for him and for the department, and Isbister agreed.
“George has been the glue to hold the department together,” he said. “He paid his debt to society. He relinquished the department credit card. He stepped down as chief. He worked to improve himself. You can’t just hold it against a guy forever, and that’s what’s happening.”