Ossipee — July 2, 2008 — Though a string of complaints from local residents have alleged misuse of the Center Ossipee Fire Department’s rescue boat on Ossipee Lake earlier this month, a lack of evidence presented to Fire Chief Mike Brownell has convinced him not to take action against the two firefighters involved.
On the afternoon of June 7, Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Fogarty granted two firefighters – one experienced and one newly licensed – permission to take the rescue boat out on Ossipee Lake for a routine training session. According to Brownell, who was informed of the training around 4 p.m. that day and did not object, the boat stayed out on the water for a session that lasted about three hours.
However, several local residents assert that the boat was used for leisure, not training, that day, wasting taxpayer dollars. One witness was Jessica Eldridge of Effingham, who was out on Ossipee Lake that day with her husband, Tim, their children, a cousin, and her mother, a Center Ossipee resident.
“We left our dock around 4 and got to Long Sands probably around 4:30,” she said in a phone interview Monday.
Once there, the group spotted the rescue boat and found it strange that it was moored and “hanging out” with another gray boat at the beach. Both Eldridge and her husband are former Center Ossipee firefighters who worked for six years under former Fire Chief Roland Stockbridge.
Eldridge said the rescue boat, with a man and woman on board, then left and came back 15 minutes later. The Eldridges later spotted the boat on Broad Bay with a third person, a male, on board.
“I’ve been on that fire department, and I know what training looks like,” she said, adding that training sessions typically take place on Thursdays, not Saturdays.
“This did not look like training to me…They were out there waving and having a good time.”
“They stayed on the boat the whole time,” she added.
“The boat was out there “at least two and a half hours, and I didn’t see any training,” continued Eldridge. “You don’t train on a 100 degree day when there’s a ton of people out watching.”
Family members snapped photos, which were then passed on to Fire Commissioner Robert Freeman as evidence. The Eldridges have not contacted Brownell, expressing a desire to go higher up in the chain of command with the complaint.
“It upsets my mother. She can’t pay her taxes on the lake… we were all upset about it,” she said. “It’s taxpayers’ money, you know?”
Fogarty and Brownell were first confronted with the allegations of firefighter misconduct on the boat at a June 17 Center Ossipee Fire Precinct meeting when Freeman related the Eldridges’ complaints and his concern that taxpayers were subsidizing a leisurely day at the beach for the two firefighters involved.
“If you’re training, you’re not sitting over at Long Sands Beach,” said Freeman, who contacted Fire Commissioner Michael Eldridge, but not Brownell, after receiving the complaint. The third member of the precinct’s commission, Jim Dolan, also didn’t know about the situation.
“If we’re working together as a team, we should be communicating,” he said. “Let’s communicate the thing to the people who can take care of it.”
Precinct resident Art Hedberg added that the communication lapse extended to the public.
“I have no way of knowing how to get in touch with anybody from your bulletin board,” he said, suggesting that contact information for the commissioners and administrators be made readily available to the public. Additionally, precinct resident Bill Grover received a call about the boat from a concerned citizen.
“What did it cost us as taxpayers, for the fuel, for the boat?” he asked. “I think we deserve to know what that costs us.” Neither the commissioners nor Brownell were able to determine the answer. Brownell was frustrated that the complaints were reported to him nearly two weeks after the incident. He said he had not seen any evidence of improper conduct.
“They assisted a boat that needed a plug because it was sinking… I think it’s the first time it’s been out there this year.”
Former fire commissioner Belinda Cullen added that she too had received a call, hers from a Gretchen Road summer resident alleging that the firefighters were sunbathing and the boat was out “all day.”
Brownell later refuted this caller’s claim in a June 20 phone interview.
“I don’t believe the boat was out there all day, otherwise we’d have to put a full 10 gallons back in the boat.”
Cullen referred the caller to the fire chief.
“I didn’t have the answer, so I passed it on,” she said.
However, as of Monday morning, June 30, Brownell had not heard from any witnesses nor Freeman, or seen the photographic evidence, though he has interviewed the two firefighters involved and found that their stories were “very consistent with one another.”
He also spoke with a local fisherman who didn’t see anything that that person would consider to be improper use of rescue equipment” while he was in the area for 15 to 20 minutes that day.
“At this time, I’ve determined that there hasn’t been any misconduct,” said Brownell.
The Center Ossipee Fire Precinct meets every first and third Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the fire department at 16 Folsom Road in Center Ossipee.