Oak Bluffs selectmen ponder scorching fire department report

Oak Bluffs firefighters battle a blaze in February. — File photo by Steve Myrick

Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour called for a workshop session of the Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday. Mr. Whritenour said he wanted to speed the resolution of pending policy issues, namely to finalize the personnel policy manual for town employees and to amend the summer construction policy for downtown.

Also on the docket was a discussion of the extensive and often critical evaluation of the town’s fire department with Acting Fire Chief John Rose.

The fire department report was compiled over six months and given to town officials on May 16 by consultant and former Brewster fire chief Roy E. Jones 3rd. It was released to the public this week. The study exposed substantial problems with leadership, clarity, morale, data collection, inter-department cooperation, training, and hiring practices. Disharmony with the selectmen was also cited.

Chairman Walter Vail opened the discussion with Chief Rose. “As you know, this report was hugely critical of the department. It seems like you have a huge job ahead of you,” Mr. Vail said. “I’d like to ask: a) do you agree with the criticisms; and b) are you feeling like you can manage through all of these in some reasonable time frame?”

“Some of the aspects I agree with, like the different departments doing different training,” said Mr. Rose. “Some of the structure stuff, like a fire prevention officer position, is going to take time. But we’re already making changes.”

Mr. Rose cited expansion of the department dive team and its imminent advanced level certification (making it the only dive team on the Island with that designation) and weekly inspection and maintenance of vehicles and equipment as some of the positive changes.

Selectman Gregory Coogan asked Mr. Rose if there had been any improvement in morale since he took over as acting chief on May 28.

“I think the department is moving in a positive direction,” said Mr. Rose. “Morale is much better. I have more people showing up for radio checks.”

“Sounds like you’re getting 60, 70, 80 percent more participation, is that correct?” asked selectman Michael Santoro.

“That’s correct,” said Mr. Rose. “I think the department is moving in a great direction right now. But I need help. I need a deputy assistant chief.”

Mr. Rose outlined changes in the personnel protocol that were highlighted in the report. He drafted new job descriptions that were to go to the rank and file on July 17. “I’m asking more of them, so I want it to be in front of them so they know what to expect,” Mr. Rose said. “It may be too much for some people.”

Mr. Rose suggested that increasing the stipends for these positions would help attract quality candidates. “The deputy chief and assistant chief both make $2,500 per year, which is the lowest on the Island. I at least want to put them between Edgartown and Tisbury, because as we all know, Oak Bluffs has the most responsibilities,” he said.

Overall, Mr. Rose asked for an additional $13,800 for stipend increases in the coming fiscal year, not including divers, who get $800 per year.

Selectman Vail noted that Mr. Jones’s report recommended using the West Barnstable stipend system to appropriately compensate personnel for the increasing time commitment required in today’s fire service.

Mr. Rose agreed with the report’s recommendation that the fire chief be a full-time position responsible for overseeing both fire department and EMS (Emergency Medical Services). “I think it works best to have one full-time chief that oversees both departments, because the two departments are so much alike,” he said.

Addressing the past disharmony between the department and the selectmen, Mr. Whritenour said emphatically, “One message we really want to deliver is how fully the board of selectmen appreciates all the work that’s done by the men and women in this department, for so little expense to the town. It’s a group of people that give so much, one of the largest sources of pride in this community. They need to know that they’re supported by us.”

“If they (rank and file) know the board is behind them and that the board is going to support them and if we have a good line of communication, even with this report, the department is going to rest at ease. They’re going to embrace things we’re trying to do if they know your support is there,” Mr. Rose said.

“We could show them our support by approving the increases in stipends he’s requesting,” said selectman Gail Barmakian.

The board members agreed.

Town personnel policy finalized

In another action, the selectmen adopted the final version of the town personnel procedures. Mr. Whritenour praised human resources administrator Wendy Brough and personnel board member Gretchen Coleman-Thomas for their two and a half years of work to update the town’s manual.

“It’s very cutting edge stuff, and I think it benefits the town greatly,” said Mr. Whritenour.

The revisions discussed primarily focused on thorny issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination, and grounds for dismissal. They also give Mr. Whritenour and department heads more authority in personnel decisions.

Ms. Coleman-Thomas urged swift approval so the manual can be distributed to town employees at once. “You can’t hold people accountable if they don’t know what they’re accountable for,” she said. ” They’ll understand what it takes to be a stellar employee working in this town.”

The policy was unanimously approved.

Downtown Construction

The selectmen moved to formalize the summer construction policy that they created in early June, in response to the outcry by several downtown merchants who claimed they were adversely affected by construction at 57 Circuit Avenue, the site of the former Oyster Bar Grill restaurant that is now owned by Edgartown National Bank.

On May 27, the selectmen ordered contractor C&J Hunt Construction to stop work by June 14. But at a special meeting on June 3, the selectmen gave C & J Hunt permission to continue with interior work, with conditions that restricted truck parking, deliveries, and work hours.

On Tuesday, the selectmen confirmed that, between June 1 and September 15, any sidewalk closure in the downtown area, even for window washing, requires approval from the selectmen. They also defined the term “downtown area” as the B-1 and B-2 districts, not just Circuit Avenue. (Commercial businesses grandfathered in residential areas would not be subject to sidewalk restrictions.)

Building inspector James Dunn asked that the policy clarify that, while a waiver from the selectmen gives someone time to make “emergency repairs” or “required repairs,” final permission is still required from his office.

The selectmen said they will refine the policy adjustments for approval at their meeting on July 23.