After the Oak Bluffs Fire Department full-time paramedic/firefighters officially joined the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) last Thursday, a number of them went on the record with their reasons for organizing. Those who spoke to The Times described a toxic work environment where, they say, morale has been in steep decline over years under the leadership of Chief John Rose.
Since last Thursday, current and past Oak Bluffs Fire employees have described a department in disarray, where except for a cloistered few, discipline is meted out capriciously, and where those who speak up are punished. One former EMT described a six-month intimate relationship with Chief Rose that involved frequent firehouse trysts while on duty.
A number of past and present employees corroborated these stories, but would not go on the record for fear of reprisal.
Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, Chief Rose declined to comment on some allegations, but defended his management of the department.
Town administrator Robert Whritenour said detailed investigations have been made into some of the complaints, and he stood firmly behind Chief Rose.
“It’s been chaos,” Kevin Kilduff, full-time firefighter/paramedic for three and a half years, told The Times.
“Every paramedic that works on the Island, with the exception of one or two, has worked for the town of Oak Bluffs [and] has either been fired or has quit. Justice needs to happen. This can’t go on like it has. The people on the Island deserve a fire department that is cohesive, that’s professional. They don’t have it, and they don’t even know it. I have nothing personally against John. But what he has done historically is blatantly wrong. I know for a fact that other fire chiefs have gotten canned for some of the stuff he’s done.”
“Things have been suboptimal across the board,” firefighter/paramedic Chris Flanders said. “A lot of paramedics commute from off-Island because on-Island paramedics have tended to move to other towns.”
Eight of the 10 full-time firefighter/paramedics joined IAFF Local 5137. Six of them commute from off-Island.
Chief Rose said Oak Bluffs full-timers are some of the highest paid in the state, and that they are treated exceptionally well.
“We built them an $8.3 million firehouse so they have the best of the best accommodations,” he said. “They have brand-new ambulances, they’re pristine. They have the newest and latest power load stretchers that save their backs; we’re the only department on the Island that has them. We go above and beyond because we value every one of them.”
Chief Rose expressed surprise at the level of dissatisfaction in the rank and file. “We often ask them how we can make things better. We’ve heard many times from them that we are too understanding and too lenient, and that we give too many chances, and that we have too big of hearts,” he said.
Several firefighter/paramedics, past and present, told The Times they believe the fractious firehouse potentially puts public safety at risk. “There’s a serious lack of cohesion between full-time staff and volunteers at a fire scene,” Mr. Flanders said. “I came from a department [in Connecticut] where we drilled once a week. Here, we drill once a month.”
Mr. Kilduff concurred. “Emergency scenes are often disorganized,” he said. “The relationship between the full-time staff and the volunteers is very incohesive. Sometimes it’s an absolute free-for-all. Other departments I’ve worked with have a run card; when a situation happens, say a hot water heater blows up, everyone knows what to do. That’s not the case here.”
“The only time it’s a free-for-all is when someone does something the command hasn’t ordered,” Chief Rose said in response. “We have an extraordinarily strong [volunteer] staff. If there are any problems, it’s not coming from them.”
“We work very hard on the training. Often companies drill in between monthly drill, whether paid or not,” Deputy Chief Shawn Broadley, department training officer, told The Times. “We take it very seriously. We train everyone to Massachusetts Firefighting Academy standards. The [firefighter/paramedics] are all very good at their jobs, but there’s definitely training available.”
“We drill as a whole on the third Wednesday of the month, in which the full-time personnel are paid, usually overtime, to participate with the [volunteer] department,” Chief Rose said. “On top of that, there are drills put together by the Dukes County Fire Chief’s Association Training Council, and the [state] department of fire services conducts numerous training sessions on the Island. Keep in mind, 98 percent of the calls for the full-time personnel are for medical emergencies. A very small percent is firefighting.”
The most recent class given on the Island by the State Fire Academy was April 29. According to Mr. Broadley, two full-time staff attended, but had to leave for emergency calls. He said there was a Barnstable Fire Academy class on May 20; 12 volunteer firefighters attended, no full-time staff attended.
“Full-time employees are often working during training sessions, particularly on off-Island transfers,” Lt. Michael Desrosiers said. “I took Firefighter 1 through the Dukes County Fire Chief’s Association in 2015; to the best of my recollection, that’s the last time they offered any training. It’s also my understanding that the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy no longer recognizes the Dukes County Association.”
Mr. Broadley also defended Chief Rose’s leadership. “He’s a very capable chief. I’m not just saying that from working with him for 27 years. We are very open; people come to us all the time. The only time somebody fails is if they don’t try.”
Mr. Broadley said he wasn’t asked to join the union, and would not have done so if asked.
“This union discussion has opened up a whole process,” Chief Rose said. “We’re not looking at this like it’s all bad.”
Mr. Kilduff is currently suspended, he said, for making a joke about problems with the fire station, which include cracking cement, the need to replace the original HVAC system, and a shortage of lockers in the men’s locker room. “There’s a lot of problems with that building, but there’s bigger issues to resolve there right now,” he said.
Mr. Kilduff said he was suspended six months ago for “slandering the fire chief.” “I had no idea what he was talking about,” he said. “There was no documentation at all. He makes up the playbook as he goes along. People know they have to look busy. The engines are washed and waxed constantly. I’ve seen people sweep a pile from one side of the garage to the other so they don’t get written up.”
“People get written up for the most arbitrary things,” Mr. Flanders said. “There’s no consistency. There’s an inordinate amount of complaints from this department for this to be attributed to a personal grudge.”
“By the time we get to the point of writing someone up, we have given them so many chances to correct themselves it’s not funny,” Chief Rose said. “We don’t just fire someone because they made a mistake. I tell them in staff meetings that I want to see each of them reach retirement age. We don’t want to fight people every day.”
Seven of the 10 paramedic/firefighters commute from off-Island; six of them joined the IAFF. A July 5 email from Chief Rose to all employees states that off-Island commuters will no longer be picked up at the boat by on-duty personnel, reversing a longstanding informal policy. Several members of IAFF Local 5137 believe the change is retribution for unionizing.
“That is absolutely not accurate,” Chief Rose said. “I can’t have one paramedic picking up another paramedic in Vineyard Haven. What happens if there’s an emergency and the bridge goes up? It doesn’t start until August 1, so they have plenty of warning.”
Retribution was alleged for a range of actions.
“Anyone that goes against what John Rose thinks gets in trouble,” former EMT Jenn McCann told The Times. Ms. McCann worked at OBFD from 2011 to 2014. She is currently a full-time EMT at Stat South Coast, based in Dartmouth. “If anybody says anything against John Rose, he will make their life a living hell. Now that I don’t live there, I’m more than happy to talk.”
Detailed investigations made
Town administrator Robert Whritenour said some complaints have triggered some “very detailed” investigations, and he has personally reviewed disciplinary actions taken by Chief Rose. “I think the chief in all his actions has used sound judgment,” he said. “We’ve had a few different employee disciplinary-related issues questioning the chief or the procedures; in every single case I found that the command staff has acted responsibly and professionally. I think he’s been very fair when EMTs have not followed established procedure. I’ve looked into complaints that people were treated disparately, and found that’s not the case. Sometimes different individuals feel like they can substitute their judgement for the chief, and that’s just not appropriate.”
Mr. Whritenour agreed that the turnover rate in the department has been high, but did not see it as a reflection of department leadership. “More often than not, people have left for underlying reasons that are not entirely the fault of management,” he said. “We routinely review departmental procedures and policies in cases where there has been discipline.There hasn’t been one instance where we’ve found that the command staff has acted irresponsibly.”
On-duty trysts alleged
Ms. McCann said she became intimately involved with Chief Rose before he was promoted to chief, which included having sexual relations at the firehouse while on duty. She said the relationship continued for about six months, and ended when he was promoted to captain. “He said we couldn’t be in a relationship if he was captain, so I quit, I gave up my career. Then he started up with another woman at the department,” she said.
“This has nothing to do with the department going union, I don’t want to comment on that,” Chief Rose said. “That stuff is just badness.”
Mr. Whritenour confirmed there have been investigations into the “rumors” of inappropriate relationships between the chief and employees. He said he has not been presented with “actionable evidence” that confirms the allegations. “As far as I know, the chief is behaving professionally,” he said. “We conduct our investigations in a very thorough way, and in all instances his behavior has been acceptable.”
In March of this year, selectmen unanimously renewed Chief Rose’s contract for three years. The vote came with no deliberation and no reference to a formal review process. Chief Rose was not at the meeting. His current annual salary is $119,892.
Conflict of interest
This is not the first time Chief Rose’s leadership has been questioned. In March 2015, the state ethics commission determined that Chief Rose violated the conflict-of-interest law when he hired four members of his immediate family between 2009 and 2013 without making the appropriate notifications, but stopped short of assessing any penalties, noting the tradition of family membership in police and fire departments.
“Your participation as ambulance chief and fire chief in the hiring and supervision of your immediate family members as ambulance department and fire-EMS department employees created a conflict of interest between your public duties and your private family relationships,” executive director Karen Norber wrote in a letter dated March 16, 2015, addressed to Chief Rose and town labor counsel Jack Collins. The letter states that Chief Rose came into full compliance in 2013, when the full board of selectmen signed off on his written disclosure regarding his involvement in the hiring and supervision of his daughter, Amanda Rose, sisters Trulayna Rose and Krystle Rose, and brother Manuel “Manny” Rose. While the commission could have fined Chief Rose for each violation, it opted instead to address the matter in a public education letter. “I want to be transparent. The most important thing is serving the department and the people of this town,” Chief Rose told The Times in an interview about the ruling.