Oak Bluffs infighting leads to emergency services split
Amid growing tensions in the Oak Bluffs fire and ambulance departments, last week the chairman of the selectmen split the two departments and placed them under separate leadership.
Greg Coogan, chairman of the selectman, made the decision on Feb. 8, following a meeting that day with fellow selectman Duncan Ross and fire and ambulance personnel.
While the fire and ambulance departments are technically already separate town departments with separate line items in the town budget, for the last several years they have both been under the leadership of Oak Bluffs fire chief, Dennis Alley, a 51-year veteran of the department.
Yesterday, Mr. Coogan said that an increase in the size of the departments and an increased workload has caused problems in recent years. "From my vantage point the two departments were becoming overwhelmed on the management side," said Mr. Coogan. "Having a full-time EMT department with a volunteer fire department meant that the fire chief had more and more thrown on his plate all the time. That seemed to be creating some difficulties with the parties."
Mr. Coogan stressed that the decision should not be seen as a reprimand of Chief Alley. "He has done a heck of a lot for this town for more than 50 years," he said.
Mr. Coogan's decision to split the management of the two departments raised some questions this week about the process.
At an Oak Bluffs selectmen's meeting Tuesday night, Roger Wey, who was away last week, said that he wants the entire board to take the matter up at a future meeting. "We're all elected in the town, and I think we should all participate in a more formalized vote," he said. "It's a very important decision."
Prior to Tuesday's meeting, selectman Kerry Scott said that she also wanted to be part of the discussion. "While I respect the decision that Greg made, I still don't think that two members of a five-member board should be the only people making those decisions."
Yesterday morning, Mr. Coogan said that he was not trying to hide the process from his fellow selectmen. He said that he had been in contact with the other board members, except Mr. Wey, who was away, prior to the meeting on Feb. 8. "This was in no way an attempt at hiding this or do anything without the other selectmen's' knowledge," he said.
Mr. Coogan said that he invited Mr. Ross to the meeting with the fire chief and other emergency personnel to "have another set of ears there." He said he did not invite the other selectmen because it would have created a quorum of the board, which would have required the meeting to be advertised 48 hours in advance.
Asked why he did not delay the meeting two days and hold a meeting with his fellow selectmen and all the parties involved, Mr. Coogan said he believed that he needed to act quickly to quell the situation. "The EMTs had said some things that made me think that things had to be done quickly," he said. "When I talked to people I knew emotions were very high, and there had been talk about people resigning, and I was concerned about having enough EMTs to cover the town and ensure the safety of the town. That's what made me get to the table quickly."
According to firefighters and EMTs within the department, Mr. Alley's leadership has been the source of mounting friction in recent years. The dissention first surfaced in 2002 when the selectmen voted to continue Chief Alley's employment under a personal services contract. The reason for the contract was to get around a state law that requires firefighters to retire at age 65.
Ralph Norton, a long-time firefighter who resigned from the department last April, said that he and other firefighters and EMTs felt that Mr. Alley, who had passed the 65-year mark, should have retired. Mr. Norton said that he went to the chief and asked for his resignation. In addition, 27 of more than 60 people in the department signed a letter asking the selectmen to not reappoint Mr. Alley as chief, Mr. Norton said. Both requests were declined.
In November of 2004, six months before it was scheduled to expire, the selectmen voted to renew Chief Alley's contract for another two years. That contract expires July 1, 2007. Mr. Norton said that the selectmen's decision once again stirred unrest in the department. He said that things got worse when Chief Alley did not promote John Rose, captain of the ambulance department, to assistant chief when the position recently became available.
Tensions came to a head two weeks ago when Mr. Rose resigned as ambulance captain, although he remained an EMT. In addition, 20 out of 28 EMTs removed their names from this month's duty roster in a show of support for Mr. Rose.
Mr. Rose has not publicly discussed the reasons for his resignation. He did not return phone calls from The Times this week seeking comment.
Mr. Coogan said that following the decision to split the management of the two departments Mr. Rose rescinded his resignation. The town has asked Mr. Rose to head the ambulance department on an interim basis.
Mr. Coogan said that details of the management split still need to be worked out. He said that the town finance director would examine the two departments and make a recommendation on any funding changes.
According to a news story in the Vineyard Gazette, Mr. Rose had agreed to take the job on the condition that an audit be conducted of the ambulance revolving fund. However, this week, Casey Sharpe, Oak Bluffs town administrator, said that no request had been made.
In a letter to the editor appearing on page 17 of today's Times, Mary Alley, an Oak Bluffs EMT and Chief Alley's daughter, defended her father and highlighted some of the discord within the fire and ambulance departments.
Reached at the Oak Bluffs firehouse yesterday afternoon, Chief Alley would say little about the events leading up to the department split-up. He stressed that he wants to move forward in the best interest of the town. "The situation being what it is, we are going to go forward, we are going to put what went on behind us, even though sometimes it hurts a little bit, and we will go with the wishes of the board of selectmen," he said. "We will continue to do a good job for the town and the people in the town."