Portland fire boat accident prompts policy changes

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PORTLAND — In the wake of an Oct. 15 accident that caused $38,000 worth of damage to the city’s fire boat, Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne on Tuesday night outlined changes to the policy governing use of the boat.

But if there is widespread public outrage about the damage to the $3.2 million boat, it was not on display at the public hearing before the City Council’s three-member Public Safety Committee.

More than a dozen rank-and-file firefighters attended the City Hall hearing, but did not address the panel. Only three members of the public made comments.

The boat’s port shaft, prop and rudder were damaged when the boat hit something in the water near Fort Gorges. In addition to the city’s $25,000 insurance deductible, LaMontagne said it will cost another $2,000 to take the boat to Rockland and back for repairs.

Fire Department Capt. Christopher Goodall and firefighter Joseph Murphy, have been suspended without pay for 10 days and five days, respectively, after it was revealed that a dozen of their friends and family members were aboard the boat when the accident occurred at around 6 p.m.

A department investigation previously concluded the firefighters were conducting training exercises, but that the accident was avoidable. “They failed to comply with common practices and U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules to ensure safe operation of the vessel,” the city said in a press release.

City Manager Mark Rees, who started work in July, admitted he made a mistake by not immediately telling the City Council as soon as he was informed of the accident.

Instead, Rees said he waited until the fire chief concluded his investigation.

“There is no policy or procedure that can guide a city manager in effective communication to the City Council,” he said. “That’s commons sense, which I failed to exercise in this situation. I will endeavor to do better going forward.”

The city still has not provided a complete accounting of the incident. City Attorney Mary Costigan said a full report will eventually be made public, but the city must first allow time for the suspended firefighters to appeal their punishments.

If that happens, Costigan said, it could be a year before the final report is released.

LaMontagne told the committee that policy changes will prohibit civilians on the boat, unless they are with a family member for transportation during an emergency.

All non-emergency use of the boat will have to be approved in advance by the city manager.

Rees said he would only sign off on non-emergency trips if using the fire boat is the “most efficient and effective way” to transport city employees.

The policy also requires crews to log the names of everyone aboard the boat, the purpose of the trip and when it starts and ends.

LaMontagne said the accident – the second in as many years – illuminated the need to have a more formal policy, rather than leaving it to the discretion of the marine unit.

In November 2009, two months after it was purchased, the City of Portland IV ran aground near Jewel Island, resulting in about $90,000 in damage.

“We clearly learned from this (recent) incident we need to tighten up that policy,” LaMontagne said.

Rees, meanwhile, said he submitted surveys to other departments about “the use of other city assets for purposes that many not be the primary purpose.” If needed, he said, he will propose policy changes for other departments.

The city, meanwhile, is also considering more formal training for boat pilots. Fire boat pilots are not trained by the Coast Guard and an initial investigation faulted the firefighters for not complying with common Coast Guard practices.

LaMontagne said firefighters are assigned to the boat by seniority and are trained by other firefighters with experience on the boat. He said boat pilots must be familiar with all areas of the harbor to be prepared for search and rescue.

“It’s critical they be familiar with all parts of our harbor – our inner harbor where our channel ends, all the way out to the the outer harbor where there is no channel,” he said.

City officials also admitted some nonprofit groups have been allowed to sell raffle tickets for fire boat rides.

One of the public speakers, Mark Usinger, said the city’s use of a fire boat has become a joke along the waterfront, where he owns a business. He said the boat can be seen headed towards Falmouth on sunny days.

Usinger suggested bigger changes are needed within the department.

“This is a department with much deeper problems,” he said. “A cursory review is not going to fix the problems with this department.”

But Councilor John Coyne, a member of the Public Safety Committee, said he supported the fire chief and city manager.

“I don’t look at this like a witch hunt,” he said. “I look at it as a point of growth. This really exposed an area where we really didn’t have any policy.

“I do have the utmost confidence in the chief and city manager,” Coyne added, “that this will be resolved in a way that public faith continues to be solid.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.