Seeking to reassure the town that the Fire/EMS Department is shipshape, and to refute allegations of mismanagement and misconduct by Chief John Rose, Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour, Chief Rose, and several members of the fire department command staff — Assistant Chief Manny Rose, Deputy Chief Shawn Broadley, and Lieutenant Matt Bradley — came to the The Times on Monday morning for a wide-ranging discussion about the current state of affairs at the fire department.
A major point of discussion was to call into question the credibility of paramedic/firefighters Kevin Kilduff and Chris Flanders, who were critical of Chief Rose’s leadership in last week’s MV Times articles “Oak Bluffs fire department rife with dissension” and “Oak Bluffs firefighter/paramedics vote to unionize.” Last week, eight of the 10 full-time staff voted to join the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
“We’re not here to assassinate the character of some of these individuals, but the relationships are much more complex than you might see,” Mr. Whritenour said.
Mr. Whritenour alleged there have been personal attacks orchestrated against Chief Rose in recent years that amount to “campaigns of terror” built on rumors, innuendo, and gossip. “You have to remember when you live on an Island, there’s a rumor about everything,” he said.
The allegations by former EMT Jenn McCann of firehouse trysts with Mr. Rose while he was assistant fire chief were framed as an event 10 years ago, possibly motivated by a breakup, “before the chief had any supervisory responsibilities.”
“We want to open up a dialogue so you can understand what the department is thinking and what our values are,” Mr. Whritenour said. “If anyone tells you that it’s a free-for-all or unprofessional, we want accountability. I demand it of this chief. There were gross misrepresentations of facts, and we’re sensitive to that. John’s in that uniform 24/7. It’s his life.”
At the conclusion of Tuesday night’s selectmen’s meeting, an angry selectman Mike Santoro lambasted The Times. “I just want to say John Rose and his command staff have my full support,” he said. “That article was way out of line. It was a slap in the face to us, the townspeople, and the people who volunteer.” Mr. Santoro said the firefighter/paramedics who spoke to The Times are “cowards who hid behind the press,” who could have gone to the personnel board or Mr. Whritenour with their complaints: “John has my complete support, and I hope the rest of the board feels the same.”
“I do,” chairman Kathy Burton said.
Mr. Whritenour said statements by Mr. Kilduff represented an “alternate reality” of what really goes on at the station. He said Mr. Flanders had also completely fabricated details about the fire department. Mr. Kilduff has been a firefighter/paramedic with the department for 3½ years. Mr. Flanders joined the department as a volunteer in 2012, and has been a full-time firefighter/paramedic for the past two years. Both men have alleged rules are enforced capriciously and sometimes maliciously, and that the chief has lost the respect of many of the rank and file.
“Both of these individuals are perhaps the worst paramedics I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Whritenour said.
Chief Rose came to Monday’s meeting with a folder of letters and emails relating to past disciplinary actions against both men. He stressed, as he did in last week’s article, that the department is extremely tolerant of missteps by department members.
“If we write up someone for an infraction, generally it’s not for just one thing; it’s for an accumulation of things,” Lt. Bradley said.
Chief Rose said Mr. Kilduff is currently suspended because his co-workers requested that he take action. He said it was not for making a joke about the problems with the firehouse, as was stated in last week’s article, but rather for “concerning statements.”
“Kevin is quoted as saying he’s going to blow the fire station up; a second email sent from two other employees from that same day, he says ‘If they fire me, I’m going to come and shoot all the employees,” Chief Rose said, reading from an email.
The writers of the emails were not disclosed.
“As chief, when someone says they’re going to come to the station and do something destructive, you have to acknowledge that. If you don’t and something happens, that’s a bad day. We’ve bent over backwards as much as we possibly can. When you have consistent write-ups, at a point you have to take action.”
Mr. Kilduff is currently out on sick leave, and when he comes back, he will be on a “last chance agreement” with the department.
“I see goodness in Kevin. It has bitten me in the past, but he has the potential to be a really good paramedic,” Chief Rose said. “I know what these guys go through, that’s why I try to give them every chance I can.”
Chief Rose added that he received an email from Mr. Kilduff the Sunday before The Times article came out, thanking him for being a good boss and for “having his back.”
Mr. Whritenour said he favored firing Mr. Kilduff, but deferred to Chief Rose.
Chief Rose said Mr. Kilduff had other infractions, including a written complaint from Oak Bluffs Police which stated he was driving an emergency response vehicle 89 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone when responding to an emergency. Lt. Bradley said the speeding incident led to Mr. Kilduff’s first suspension.
Chief Rose said he also had a complaint from the hospital about Mr. Kilduff’s behavior, stemming from “sarcastic and inappropriate language” he used in earshot of nurses and patients, and that he had been cited for not properly documenting narcotics used on the ambulances.
The complaints about Mr. Flanders were less dramatic. Lt. Bradley said his insufficient documentation of narcotic supplies has been a longstanding problem. He was written up for leaving Haldol, an antipsychotic medication, in the cupholder of a response vehicle for 48 hours. His most recent infraction was when he didn’t show up for work at the rescue boat at 8 am, on the morning of July 4. He was over two hours late, Chief Rose said, and they had used cell phones, pagers and radios to locate him, and were about to initiate a welfare check when Mr. Flanders called in, saying he had overslept. “You’re responsible for protecting the people on the busiest day on Martha’s Vineyard. You don’t oversleep through that,” Chief Rose said.
Rank and file respond
On Tuesday, Mr. Kilduff spoke to The Times about the allegations. “I respect Mr. Whritenour’s position as town administrator, but I’ve never met him, and I’ve never seen him in person, or seen him on an emergency call or in the back of an ambulance for that matter,” he said.
Mr. Kilduff said the “troubling statements” were misread sarcasm. “If somebody doesn’t get the irony of a fireman saying he was going to burn down the firehouse, I don’t know what to say,” he said. “That comment was made 100 percent in jest. I never said anything about shooting anyone. I’m not that guy. My last chance agreement doesn’t even mention that. I’ve asked to see the emails; I never saw them.”
Addressing the suspension for speeding, he said, “That was a mistake. I’m guessing they didn’t mention it was late at night in the middle of February. I proceeded with due caution.”
Mr. Kilduff acknowledged there was a nurse at the hospital that criticized him for being too sarcastic, but that to his knowledge, there had never been a complaint from a patient. “Again, I requested a copy of the complaint, and have no documentation,” he said.
Mr. Kilduff also acknowledged that he had failed to properly inventory narcotics, as the chief alleged. “One time in three years I didn’t write a number down,” he said. “One time.”
Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, firefighter/paramedic Lt. Mike Desrosiers was solidly in Mr. Kilduff’s corner.
“Kevin is a fantastic paramedic, one of the best on the Island,” he said. “I’ve been a paramedic for nine years. The best praise you can get as a paramedic is that someone would trust you to work on a family member. I would absolutely want Kevin to work on my wife and children.”
Firefighter/paramedic Thom Lambert was also unequivocal in his support. “I can’t give Kevin enough high praise as a paramedic,” he said. “The chief used him as a Coast Guard medic, when people have to be airlifted off the Island, about 90 percent of the time. That shows you the level of Kevin’s skills.”
Mr. Lambert, president of IAFF Local 5137, began as an EMT in 1991 and has been a paramedic for the past 10 years, serving in Fall River before coming to Oak Bluffs three years ago, within a month of Mr. Kilduff’s hiring. “Kevin’s one of the best paramedics I’ve ever seen,” he said. “He’s one of those rare medics that don’t come around very often. I can’t say anything better about him.”
Mr. Flanders disputed the allegation that he had left Haldol in an ambulance cup holder and said his partner from that evening could verify it. “Haldol is not a controlled substance, and it’s open to access to anyone who has access to the ambulance,” he said.
Mr. Flanders acknowledged he was late on the morning of July 4. “I had a late off-Island transfer the previous night,” he said. “It was an extra detail, not a scheduled shift. It was a mistake, but I didn’t delay the boat, as some people have said. It was out working, keeping an eye on the fireworks barge. I haven’t been late for a shift in two years.”
“Chris is still in the new phases of being a paramedic,” Lt. Desrosiers said. “He hasn’t gone through a recertification cycle yet. Does the kid make some mistakes? Yes. A lot of it is documentation, but there are no issues with him when it comes to patient care.”
Mr. Lambert concurred. “We all stumble a little when we start out, all of us,” he said. “It’s a difficult job, and it takes time to learn. I have no doubt Chris is going to be great paramedic.”
Speaking to The Times on Wednesday, fire department veteran EMS Second Lieutenant Rich Michelson, a volunteer EMT for 15 years, said emphatically that he believes the Oak Bluffs Fire/EMS department has the most dedicated personnel on the Island. “The paramedics, EMTs, and firefighters take what they’re doing very seriously and strive to be good,” he said. “I think the issues are the chief’s consistency, leadership, character, and personal accountability.”
Mr. Michelson said he believes morale in the volunteer staff is also suffering under Chief Rose’s leadership.
“John is a great paramedic. His sisters are too. If one of my family needed saving, I’d want them there. But it’s really painful to see the direction the company has gone under his leadership. I spent a lot of my life at the station. I don’t want that to be in vain. The department needs transparency.”
OBFD most demanding department on M.V.
At Monday’s meeting, Lt. Bradley strongly countered claims that Chief Rose isn’t up to snuff when it comes to taking charge of a fire/emergency scene. “The chief does a phenomenal job of running a scene,” he said.
Mr. Whritenour cited a consultant’s report from retired Brewster Fire Chief Roy Jones, written last August. Mr. Jones wrote a scorching assessment of the department in May 2013. In his 2016 report he was more upbeat, the first line stating, “Oak Bluffs Moving Forward!”
He wrote the report after speaking to nine of the rank and file along with Chief Rose, Assistant Chief Rose and Deputy Chief Broadley. “The majority interviewed had a positive feeling about the direction of the department,” he said. His report was ultimately a mixed bag. He went on to write that the chief “must work at being as consistent as possible in all [leadership] areas,” and that “Standard Operating Procedure needs to be worked out” for fire operations, in particular about which vehicles should respond to certain situations. Mr. Jones advocated more drilling. He wrote that people he’d interviewed had described a “freelancing fire department — need control.” He noted that the chief should meet with the entire department more frequently than quarterly. He said the new fire station was a big morale booster, and he commended the department’s rehabilitation policy, “that looks very good compare (sic) to national standards.”
At Monday’s meeting, Mr. Whritenour said part of the reason for the high turnover of paramedics in Oak Bluffs is the grueling off-Island transports, which can require a crew to make three trips to Boston hospitals in one day.
“Oak Bluffs is by far the hardest paramedic unit to work in,” he said. “A lot of people don’t make it. We’re the only department who take patients from Martha’s Vineyard to Boston. A lot of paramedics come through, find out that it’s just too stressful for them, and they wind up going to, say, Tri-Town, where they have hardly any calls and mostly sit around and do the occasional call. Oak Bluffs is the hardest place to work. But I’m convinced it’s not an issue of out-of-control management.”
Tri-Town is the ambulance company that serves the three up-Island towns, West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah.
“I know people that have quit us to go to Tri-Town; they know they’re going to make less money, but they know they go three months without taking a patient to the hospital, working a full-time job,” Lt. Bradley said. “That won’t happen in Oak Bluffs.”
Rumors and innuendo
Mr. Whritenour said there have been several political campaigns against Chief Rose over the years aimed at discrediting him. He alleged one effort was spearheaded by Peter Martell, a former Oak Bluffs captain and emergency management director. It was Martell who spread false rumors about Chief Rose having an affair with his administrative assistant, Cindy Hatt, Mr. Whritenour said. “Peter Martell has wanted to be chief his whole life,” Mr. Whritenour said. “When we hired John as chief, [Martell] wanted to be the chief. He interviewed and didn’t get the job. He’s been irrationally dogging John ever since then. He was fired from the department, fought it in court, got put back on the department. He’s always been that outlier. He initiated a campaign of terror — rumors, innuendo, and gossip, saying the chief is sleeping with everybody. Those are issues we’ve addressed. As far as I know, the chief is not having relationships with anyone in his department.”
Mr. Martell refuted the idea that he was irrationally dogging the chief. “I applied for the job because I thought Rose was too incompetent to do it, and I still think he’s too incompetent to do it,” he said. “If he was treating the rank and file well, you wouldn’t need a union. I was on the department 46 years. I came up under Chief Amaral. He was a gentleman; he had the respect of the entire department. Chief Alley took over, he was a good chief too. Forend was a terrible chief; he accused me of misusing funds, I sued and I won. Then Rose came in; things kept going downhill.”
Mr. Whritenour said there was a thorough investigation of the alleged relationship between Chief Rose and Ms. Hatt. “We investigated and found that it wasn’t true, in fact she was having a relationship with another member of the department,” he said. “We found that we had to take disciplinary action in that instance. You can’t control everyone’s relationship, but we’re very much attuned to workplace behavior.”
Mr. Whritenour said Ms. Hatt’s ex-husband, Eric Hatt, was part of Mr. Martell’s “cabal,” and they had dealt with him “extensively” after their marriage broke up over the allegations. “The husband became fixated on the chief because he believed it was the chief’s fault that the marriage split up,” Mr. Whritenour said. “That was another campaign of terror. They conspired with a third individual from off-Island to conduct some illegal activities aimed at the chief.”
Ms. Hatt declined to comment.
Mr. Whritenour said he’s hired outside investigators to look into personnel complaints in the department, and found no actionable transgressions. He said the allegations of on-duty trysts and interdepartmental intimate relationships are “issues I addressed with the chief from the first day I started. From day one he agreed with me about that, and I haven’t had any issue.”
Mr. Whritenour suggested Ms. McCann’s assertions, mentioned in last week’s article, are 10 years old, came after a breakup, and they may have been intended as punishment toward Chief Rose.
“No one is sitting here saying the department is perfect,” Mr. Whritenour said. “This isn’t just a story. It’s an ongoing community issue that’s going to be with us for some time. We all want to be accountable. We’ve reviewed these issues to the selectmen level. Where we need to conduct investigations, we’ve conducted them. All I ask for is professionalism and accountability, and I’m really proud of these guys.”