Tension Inside Oak Bluffs Fire Department Leads to Emergency Services Separation
By JAMES KINSELLA
Following mounting dissension in the Oak Bluffs fire department, the chairman of the board of selectmen moved this week to make the ambulance service a separate department.
Selectman and board chairman Gregory Coogan said he made a management decision Wednesday to split the two services, a move he said was long overdue.
"I think there are inherent problems in the two departments," Mr. Coogan said. "I think they have been at odds over time."
Fire chief Dennis Alley, a 51-year veteran of the department, has been supervising both the fire and ambulance operations.
Tensions over Mr. Alley's leadership in recent years reportedly have permeated the entire fire department, including the ambulance service. Last week matters came to a head when the captain of the ambulance squad resigned and a large group of town emergency medical technicians removed their names from the duty roster, as a gesture of protest.
Mr. Alley says the discontent is isolated, and that he has treated fire and ambulance department members well.
While Mr. Coogan said Mr. Alley has been doing a good job, he said the separation of the ambulance service will relieve the strain on the chief.
"My thoughts are kind of mixed," Mr. Alley said yesterday about the decision to split the departments. "If in fact that will work for the board, fine. It's going to take a little time. We can adapt."
John Rose, a former ambulance captain, said yesterday that Mr. Coogan had asked him to head the ambulance service. Mr. Rose said he is mulling over the offer.
A veteran emergency medical technician, Mr. Rose resigned his post as captain last week, though he has continued to serve as an EMT. Mr. Rose's resignation sparked a collective decision by a number of emergency workers to take their names off the night volunteer duty roster. Reportedly 20 of the 28 EMTs removed their names from the list.
But Mr. Coogan said yesterday that he does not know exactly know who will run the ambulance service.
Mr. Rose reportedly has agreed to take the job on the condition that an audit be conducted of the ambulance revolving fund. Revenue from the fund has financed police and fire equipment as well as the ambulance service.
Selectman Kerry Scott said yesterday that splitting the two operations is a good idea, given tensions within the fire department. But Ms. Scott also said she believes the full board of selectmen should have met to consider the idea.
Mr. Coogan met Wednesday in a closed session with Mr. Alley and selectman Duncan Ross. Because the two selectmen were not a quorum (Oak Bluffs has five selectmen), no posting was required under the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law.
Mr. Coogan said he had been in touch with two of the other three selectmen on the issue. The fifth selectman, Roger Wey, was away.
Ms. Scott was unmoved in her opposition. "Effectively, three selectmen have been shut out of the discussion," she said.
She said she would welcome Mr. Rose running the ambulance service, given his credentials, experience and his rapport with other service members. Unlike Mr. Rose, Ms. Scott said, the fire chief is not an EMT.
But Ms. Scott said the job may need to be posted and advertised.
As for Mr. Alley, who is 71, Mr. Coogan said the split would allow the chief to serve the remaining 15 or so months of his contract with enthusiasm.
Events of the past two weeks, however, have revealed divisions inside the department. Tensions apparently overflowed following Mr. Rose's decision to resign as ambulance captain. Yesterday, Mr. Rose declined to comment on why he resigned.
On Wednesday, prior to meeting with Mr. Coogan and Mr. Ross, Mr. Alley said: "I think this thing is being blown terribly out of proportion. At this point, I think we're on the road to stabilization and getting things back to where they should be. This is a misunderstanding between a couple of people. It's being taken care of internally."
Mr. Alley described the state of ambulance service and fire coverage in Oak Bluffs as excellent.
But Ms. Scott and former fire Capt. David Billings say department members have been concerned for years about Mr. Alley's leadership style.
"He controls everything that goes on," said Mr. Billings, a 27-year veteran firefighter. "He doesn't have the personality to deal with the guys under him . . . Right now, there's a lot of tension down there."
But Mr. Alley characterized any assertions that he does not treat department members well as "an absolute insult."
"You can't say that about me," he said.
Mr. Alley works as a so-called strong chief, who has wide discretion in personnel decisions and overall department operation.
Mr. Billings said Mr. Alley has favored a number of department members over others who had shown more merit, such as Mr. Rose.
"He's held back some really talented people like Johnny," Mr. Billings said.
Ms. Scott said another issue concerns whether the Oak Bluffs ambulance service is receiving the proper level of support through the ambulance revolving fund. She said revenue from the fund has been targeted toward items such as police cruisers and a ladder fire truck.
Mr. Billings said the department now is lagging both in equipment and training. "We should be much more advanced," he said.
Mr. Alley disputed the claim.
He said the revolving fund has provided excellent support for the ambulance service, even though a number of other expenditures for other items have come from the fund.
Mr. Billings and former deputy fire chief Ralph Norton said that in 2002 more than 20 department members asked the board of selectmen to not reappoint Mr. Alley as chief. The board reappointed Mr. Alley.
Then, in November 2004, the board voted 4-1, with Ms. Scott dissenting, to award Mr. Alley a new two-year, personal services contract starting July 1, 2005. Ms. Scott said she dissented because the renewal came long before the appointment normally would be discussed.
On Tuesday, Ms. Scott asked Mr. Coogan to schedule an emergency meeting of the board of selectmen to discuss Mr. Alley, because the selectmen had not yet received a report from the chief on the collective EMT action last week. "The purpose of the meeting is that there's a crisis in town," she said.
Mr. Coogan opted instead for a discussion attended by two selectmen.
Ms. Scott said the town needs to deal respectfully with Mr. Alley, given his long service to the town.
"Boards of selectmen have allowed that department to be a problem," Ms. Scott said. "It's our fault."