The Searsport Fire Department has raised concerns about the town’s hiring practices following the reinstatement of a previously terminated fire captain.
In October, Town Manager James Gillway and the Select Board rehired A.J. Koch, who was terminated from his volunteer position as a fire captain in 2017 due to violations of fire department safety procedures.
At the board’s Tuesday meeting, members of the fire department told the board they were concerned about Koch’s rehiring, as well as the department’s overall hiring process. They say the hiring policy is inconsistently enforced, lacks transparency and overinfluenced by the town manager and select board.
“More concerning is that despite the fire department’s leadership voicing specific concerns about the reappointment to captain’s role, town officials were unwilling to discuss any alternative plans regarding the individual’s return to the department,” Captain Karl Bjorklund said on behalf of the fire department.
Koch was fired in 2017 after he was reported for violating the fire department’s safety standards. According to the termination letter, he responded to a fire as the incident commander without bringing all necessary safety equipment. The letter states he also discouraged other firefighters from going to retrieve personal protective equipment or wearing all of the proper gear while fighting the fire. He later appealed the decision, but it was upheld.
Despite the policy violations, Gillway reinstated Koch as a fire captain because of trouble hiring for the position and an immediate need for a captain. Koch is filling the last open officer position in the fire department.
The fire department’s policy states hiring would need approval from the fire chief, police chief and town manager, but the town manager has the final say under town code. Gillway said he was unable to come to a consensus with Public Safety Chief Todd Boisvert or then-interim Fire Chief Herb Kronholm, so the Select Board encouraged Gillway to use his authority as town manager to hire Koch.
Gillway believes that in the last five years Koch has learned his lesson.
“I don’t have any fear that this would repeat itself,” he said.
Members of the fire department, however, were concerned at the board meeting about how Koch’s reinstatement could pose safety risks.
Representatives from the fire department and the town manager met on Thursday night to discuss the hiring policy and reintroduce Koch to the department.
Ahead of the meeting, Gillway said the town was not going to reverse the decision to reinstate Koch because he is now an active employee, though he is waiting for safety gear before responding to calls.
In the end, however, Gillway said the focus shifted away from concerns about Koch’s reinstatement. Rather, firefighters agreed there needs to be a uniform hiring policy that is consistently enforced. The town has now tasked newly hired Fire Chief Antonio Rivera with rewriting the fire department’s standard operating guidelines.
“We’re starting from square one. We’re turning the page. Everyone’s on an equal playing field, and everyone’s moving forward,” Gillway said.
In the meantime, Police Chief Todd Boisvert said he was looking into unspecified personnel issues with Koch.
“There’s now surfacing some concerns that are not documented,” Gillway said. “What transpired is we’re doing a deep dive into past complaints and haven’t been able to find anything of substance.”