Putney fire services return after turmoil, two-month hiatus

New interim chief will lead a department that will include 10 certified members, as an advisory board works toward reinstating EMS

PUTNEY-Nearly two months after the fire department collapsed, the town has a plan - and the department is back in action.

On May 24, the Selectboard held a special meeting to discuss the strategies outlined by the town and the interim fire chief and voted unanimously to un-suspend the fire department side of services at noon on May 25.

The town has been without an active fire department since the Selectboard voted on April 3 to suspend activities of the department after a mass resignation by 12 firefighters - the entire department.

Many said the reasons behind the resignations centered on a lack of respect for emergency responders from town officials.

On April 4, those who resigned from the fire department wrote an open letter to the community about their choice, calling it "an agonizing decision, since caring for the community is the top priority for each and every one of the members."

The letter continued to note that service "requires the trust and support of town government and, unfortunately, the last few years saw an erosion of this trust, culminating in Chief [Tom] Goddard's resignation after 22 years.

"More recently, a series of poor decisions made by town government, including inappropriate public proclamations occurring at the critical juncture following the Chief's departure, created an atmosphere that further undermined the members' ability to fulfill their core responsibility to provide emergency services for the town."

Those who resigned said in their letter they hoped for a spirit of reconciliation and that they wanted to "be part of the effort to vision, plan, and rebuild the Putney Fire Department in collaboration with the Selectboard and the community."

At that time, Town Manager Karen Astley started working on the plan - the Putney Fire Department Interim Strategic Model Plan for Fire Service Reactivation - with newly-named Interim Fire Chief Brian Harlow.

"The complexity of this situation is multi-layered," Astley wrote at the time. "Open communications and discussions with the town fire department have been occurring and will continue."

She said the Selectboard and her office would be "committed to resolving this situation with the assistance of the members of the Putney Fire Department."

"We are listening to the community's concerns," Astley wrote. "We are doing our best to resolve the situation with the least disruption to public safety services."

Since the suspension, mutual aid coverage for fire has been coming from Dummerston, Westminster, and Brattleboro.

On April 5, Rescue Inc. launched a first response program for the town. Emergency Medical Services (EMS) will stay with Rescue Inc. for now, but the department will help when and where needed, if requested, Harlow said.

EMS will be addressed once the fire department is up and running again.

'We're good to go'

"It sounds like we're comfortable with this," Selectboard Chair Aileen Chute said of the plan before the vote in the 30-minute meeting Friday. "In general, I think the more things we have in writing, the better we'll understand what's going on, and we won't get to this point again."

Chute thanked Astley, Harlow, and others.

"We're good to go," she said. "Thank you for all your work."

The board addressed issues that had been raised by Selectboard Vice-Chair Peg Alden, who was not present, including the lack of regular reports to the board by the fire department and a job description for the interim chief.

Regarding improving interdepartment communications, Chute said, "I don't know what I don't know."

"Delegating responsibility will be key to build a system where not just one person is doing everything," Astley said of the plan.

Harlow said he was confident the fire side of the department would be viable by the next day, noting that 10 department members are currently fully certified and a few more are "close."

Also, the interim chief said the new department had among its ranks "a fair [number] of new folks who are fairly green but I feel they're going to come up to speed fairly quick."

Former board member Laura Chapman, speaking during the discussion about the importance of coordinating efforts once a call comes in to provide optimal response time, supported the interim chief's efforts while noting her concern over the challenges of doing so, particularly through informal communication.

"There's been a lot of hurt feelings through this process over the past months, if not years […] and I hope you're finding ways to be really inclusive of everybody and you're also being inclusive in your speech," she said.

"I often hear 'guys' language being used, and there's more than guys," Chapman pointed out. "I hope you can think about that and take it into consideration going forward."

After the meeting she clarified that while she understands many people use the phrase in a "non-gendered way," it still "sends a clear message."

"Addressing language is critical to creating an environment where everyone feels safe and valued," Chapman wrote on Facebook.

She called on the community "to address these issues to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, feels included and respected in the fire department, where misogyny has often been not just overlooked, but accepted, and even sometimes condoned in a 'guys will be guys' way."

"This has led to serious issues and is a part of how we got to the point of not having a department," Chapman continued. "Changing language is the low-hanging fruit in a much broader issue."

Training, recruitment, and a return to the community

The new plan, at, starts by noting the department "has experienced an evolutionary change" with the retirement of former Chief Tom Goddard shortly after a January operations analysis completed by AP Triton, a public safety consulting firm based in Wyoming.

That study outlined areas of deficiency "that can be corrected to ensure safety from risk and liability," the new plan said, and it recognized the town is "at a crossroad in determining how to move forward" for both short-term and long-term processes.

Like many volunteer fire departments in the state and country, the Putney Fire Department - a town department with an operating budget supported by property tax revenue - is facing challenges in recruiting and retaining personnel, limited funding, and meeting service demands.

"Customer demands continue to increase, while dollars and adequate staff time continue to shrink," the plan's introduction reads. "This trend places more pressure on the modern fire service and policymakers to come up with ways to be more efficient and effective."

At the same time, the plan acknowledges that "the Putney community is accustomed to certain standards of service from the Putney Fire Department."

The plan - which may well be tweaked as the reactivation process unfolds, town officials say - calls for the focus of the interim fire chief "to achieve basic firefighting, reduce the burden on mutual aid departments, effectively train and recruit members by establishing clear goals, create a level of trust within the system structure, and allow people to be welcomed into the department."

Regarding the concern prior to suspending operations about "whether or not the current employees are trained properly and what type of training is required," the plan delineates, in detail, the minimum certification requirements for firefighters and EMS personnel.

Initiatives include:

• fast-track training for certifications

• encouraging current firefighters to register for Fire Fighter I certifications

• retaining the current list and recruiting new firefighter candidates

• reconnecting and communicating with those department members who resigned "to ask what their intent and expectation" is,

• and scheduling an open house with a recruiting push to the public.

To address "the lack of delegation and training on critical systems within the fire department," which, the report says, "has left the current personnel and town management in a situation where it may take time to come up to speed with the current systems in place," the plan offers several initiatives:

• Look internally within the personnel and delegate some tasks to others.

• Hire at least one or two administrative personnel to assist with daily tasks that need to be completed. This person can be part-time.

• Allow training on the platforms needed with the appropriate vendors, including ESO, the department's software for fire incident reporting.

• Ensure the fire department is connected to the town IT infrastructure for protection and compliance.

Finally, the plan aims to implement response performance objectives and benchmarks for re-evaluation in one month, noting that the Putney department "will require a plan to transition Putney EMS employees."

Advisory board looks to future priorities, including EMS

The town has also set up a Fire Department Advisory Committee. Alden, who sits on the panel, says the group is working on a medium-range plan.

That plan will address some of the concerns in the AP Triton operations analysis of the department and will engage the community "in determining the priorities for moving forward […] including the model of emergency services that best fits Putney and the role of a new, permanent fire chief," she said.

The AP Triton report noted 49 issues and recommended actions, ranging from developing a new key policy and long-range financial plan to reallocating the duties of the fire chief, re-evaluating the mission of the department, developing a strong communications plan, and implementing a process for periodic operating guideline review.

"I can't speak for everyone, but my sense is that the majority of the Selectboard and a majority of people associated with the fire department support moving forward with an eventual solution," Chute told The Commons about a week ago.

"As far as what caused the current situation, I would say that there have been complicated issues with the fire department since before I was a Selectboard member, and our current situation was perhaps inevitable," she said. "I am hopeful that we can all learn from this and move forward with a sustainable solution."

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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