State cites Harpswell fire departments for workplace violations

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HARPSWELL — The state Department of Labor is proposing a $6,400 fine for alleged violations of occupational safety and health rules by the town’s volunteer fire departments.

Pamela Megathlin, director of the Maine Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Standards, on June 4 notified Town Manager Kristi Eiane that the bureau  found violations in its April 8 inspection of workplace conditions.

Although the fire departments are volunteer, the fine is being levied against the town because it provides workers’ compensation insurance for the firefighters.

More than three quarters of the $6,400 penalty was accrued by the Orr’s-Bailey Island Fire Department, which is being assessed $4,700. More than half of that stems from a single incident.

According to the DOL report, on April 21, just after 7 a.m., the department received an emergency call for a house fire caused by a lightning strike on Whale Watch Road. When firefighters arrived, there was smoke coming from the eves of the house.

One firefighter entered the building and found the fire in the building’s attic. But, he was the only interior-qualified firefighter on the scene, meaning the department could not establish a safety protocol of “two-in, two-out” interior-qualified firefighters.

The fire chief decided to proceed and extinguish the fire to save the structure.

The event was referred to inspector Tammy Gross by an employee complaint.

Gross charged the department with three violations: two for not establishing two-in, two-out protocol, and one for allowing a firefighter with two to three days of beard growth to use a tight-fitting respirator. The violations each carry a $1,000 penalty.

Complex compliance

The Whale Watch Road fire illuminates the complexities of keeping a volunteer department in line with state regulations.

Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department received 19 citations, including several for not having properly documented or executed annual trainings for things like respirator instruction and hazardous materials response.

“Everything DOL said to us is a good idea,” Cundy’s Harbor VFD President Jonathan Burbank admitted. But, he said, getting the whole department into compliance is complicated.

A regular employer can require his or her employees to attend training at night, Burbank said. But at the volunteer department, “we had to run one type of training five times to get everyone covered.”

Cundy’s Harbor will be running basic training for all its volunteers two nights a month all summer long and into September. Burbank said they have already lost one qualified, veteran interior firefighter who doesn’t want to invest time in the “basic firefighter school.”

Burbank said there are relatively few interior-qualified firefighters at the department, and they are the hardest category to maintain.

He also said he’s concerned about how many volunteers the department will lose during the training process.

Besides the violations at Cundy’s Harbor, DOL found 15 violations at the Harpswell Neck Fire Department, and 19 violations at the Orr’s-Bailey Island Fire Department.

The Labor Department also found two violations at Town Hall, and two at the Recycling Center.

Eiane said this was the first state inspection of the volunteer fire departments in recent memory.

Town seeks relief

On June 15, Eiane asked the DOL for the opportunity to “discuss the proposed penalties” and hopefully alleviate some of the costs.

Based on conversations she has had with the heads of the fire departments, she said, “my understanding is that all departments are making substantial progress.”

DOL has been willing to work in the past to reduce financial penalties when the cited parties “work promptly” to address the issues, she added.

Burbank on Wednesday said his department has already worked out many of the citations, and was preparing to address more, including the summer-long training.

“It’s a challenge for a volunteer organization to meet all requirements,” Eiane said. “But it has to be done, that’s the point being made here.”

The number of fire department volunteers has dropped off in recent years, causing the town to contract with Mid Coast Hospital to provide additional paramedic service.

But the town’s three volunteer departments remain an important part of emergency service, Burbank said.

“The most basic thing to understand about the town and the departments is geography,” he said. “The town gets really excellent service levels from having three departments … because they’re local to geography.”

“Imagine the time it takes a truck leaving Harpswell Neck to get to Cundy’s Harbor,” he added.

Volunteer departments keeps service costs down, Burbank said, and will continue to do so as they work to comply with the DOL standards.

Maintaining a centralized municipal fire department would be cost prohibitive, given the amount of calls Harpswell gets, Burbank said, adding that he hopes they can keep recruiting volunteers to meet demand.

The departments will keep running “until we maybe get done in by demographics,” he said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100. or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.