Claiming town officials have been unresponsive to his repeated requests to improve fire safety in the town, fire Chief Norm St. Pierre submitted his resignation March 18. On Monday, St. Pierre said he has agreed to rescind his resignation from the force, but a final decision on whether to leave the department is "up in the air." He has been fire chief in town since 2005 and has brought up safety concerns on an annual basis, St. Pierre said.
In his three-page resignation letter, St. Pierre notes multiple safety failings in West Paris, principally a claim that many of the fire hydrants in town have not been maintained by the West Paris Water District and are unreliable.
"Taxpayers have been paying money every year for the rental of these hydrants that cannot be relied on to function in a time of need," St. Pierre said in his letter.
The hydrants also have a maximum use time of less than two hours, based on the water needs of the department and neighboring towns that provide mutual aid, St. Pierre said.
Delay on repairs to the West Paris Fire Station, imprecise and misleading numbering of houses in town and inadequate funding for a replacement squad truck are among the other issues outlined by St. Pierre during a meeting with selectmen last week.
The department has no way of knowing how many of the 43 hydrants in the town are fully functioning, and St. Pierre said he was worried that the department may not be able to react quickly enough to a large fire because of a faulty hydrant.
"I don't feel confident that they are going to work for us, and neither does anyone else, including our mutual aid partners," St. Pierre said. His attempts to obtain hydrant maintenance records have been denied by Water District officials, he told selectmen.
In some cases, the department has not been able to tap into a hydrant and has been forced to plug into nearby rivers and bodies of water, he reported. If those resources are unavailable, which they have been for most of the winter, town firefighters will probably have to rely on water transported into town by mutual aid agencies, he told selectmen.
In a memo to selectmen sent March 26, St. Pierre asked for hydrant maintenance records, repair of some incorrectly installed hydrants with valves that are difficult for firefighters to access, and a feasibility study on enlarging the town's reservoir. At Thursday's meeting he said it was important for his department to improve communication with Water District officials.
The small, all-volunteer West Paris Fire Department responded to a high number of serious structure fires over the last year, including the inferno that destroyed the former Penley Mill last January and an all-day fire at the West Paris Metals scrapyard in August, among other serious structure fires.
Diminishing manpower and limited equipment add to the department's challenges, St. Pierre said. West Paris now has only 12 firefighters on its roster, down from 18 last year, mainly due to the time commitment necessary to maintain certifications, he told selectmen.
The department only has two functioning vehicles and lacks some of the equipment it would need to tackle a serious emergency, like a fire at the Everett Propane facility on Route 26, St. Pierre said.
The department has been allocated $20,000 to spend on a pump truck, but finding a good used vehicle at that amount is exceptionally difficult, St. Pierre said.
The department, with the assistance of resident John Lemmon, had the opportunity to buy a replacement truck from the Trenton, N.J., Fire Department for $25,000, but selectmen did not organize a meeting to authorize the purchase quickly enough and another department bought the vehicle, St. Pierre said.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Wade Rainey said he understood that the department was disappointed it could not purchase the vehicle, but selectmen needed to follow legal procedures when making a purchase of that scale.
The selectmen and Town Manager John White intend to acquire maintenance records from the Water District and find out how many hydrants are functioning, Rainey said.
Written by Peter McGuire