O.B. looks at restructuring fire, EMS department

After years of issues, town has blank slate to define duties.

Oak Bluffs selectmen met in person with members of the town Fire and EMS to discuss structural changes to the department. — Brian Dowd

With their interim fire chief two months away from leaving, the town of Oak Bluffs is looking at once again restructuring the fire and EMS department.

Meeting in person for the first time in nearly four months, Oak Bluffs selectmen and town administrator Rob Whritneour met with several members of the Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS department Tuesday at a socially distanced meeting at Sailing Camp Park.

Selectmen and the Fire-EMS reviewed three draft scenarios compiled by Whritneour. In scenario A, the town would split the fire and EMS into separate departments, with two separate chiefs. Scenario B would operate similarly to how the department is run now, with one fire-EMS chief, followed by a deputy fire chief and an EMS captain. Scenario C would have one department director to oversee both fire and EMS, followed by some separation between departments with a fire chief and an EMS captain.

There was general consensus among selectmen and members of the fire-EMS that it would be best to create a succession plan where people could be trained and groomed for promotion. “These three aren’t set in stone. These are three different ideas that we can work with and find out what works best for Oak Bluffs,” selectman Jason Balboni said.

Selectman Brian Packish said he supported a scenario C structure because of a need for administrative work, such as budgeting and working with the Whritneour and the financial committee.

Speaking to The Times by phone Wednesday, Packish said that restructuring the fire-EMS has been an ongoing conversation for several years. “As times have changed, so have roles and responsibilities, and as we’re looking to hire those new roles, it’s important to have job descriptions that are clear and defined, and people can excel in them in the future,” Packish said. 

Police Chief Erik Blake said he believed the fire and EMS departments should be separate.

“I think the fire department and the ambulance need a little bit of time to reset and then identify people that can move up and take over leadership positions,” Blake said. “The opportunity is there to make the department what you want to make it.”

The Oak Bluffs Fire-EMS has been rife with issues over the past several years. Most recently, these include the resignation of its embattled former Fire Chief John Rose, who resigned following the town’s decision to settle a sexual harassment claim against Rose for $97,500; federal billing issues with Comstar, the town’s ambulance billing company; and a probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the fire-EMS department.

In 2017, the town restructured the fire department by splitting up fire and EMS duties. In 2018, the department reached a deal to settle unfair labor allegations with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) local 5137, the department’s union.

While selectmen said they want the process to be thorough and not rushed, there is a time element, with interim Chief Martin Greene, who is four months into a six-month contract with the town, leaving at the end of September.

While Tuesday was the first time members of the department saw the possible scenarios, there were differing opinions on which way the town should go.

Greene said he believed a fire-EMS chief is the way to go.

Firefighter Mike Salvatore said the town should have one person representing the department as a whole. “I don’t feel we should separate,” Salvatore said.

On the other hand, Lt. Ray Moreis said there should be a full-time chief, but separate from EMS.

Capt. John Gonsalves, a volunteer firefighter and full-time paramedic, said he saw both sides of the issue, but that the town needs a full-time fire chief, a full-time deputy chief, and an EMS captain or chief.

“I understand the animosity that’s happened in the past. I feel the full-time staff we have now is a whole different staff,” he said. “If we stay combined, I think things could work out in a better direction.”

Going forward, Balboni, who is the fire department liaison to the selectmen, said department members could reach out to him. Selectmen said they would continue the discussion at their next meeting on July 28.