Deciding Between an Elected or Appointed Fire Chief

March 8, 2019

 

by David S. Morin

In a few short days, on March 12, Litchfield voters will head to the polls to decide on the numerous requests and warrant articles placed on the town ballot by board of selectmen and citizen petitioners.

Warrant Article 13 by petition states, “To see if the town will vote to reverse the appointed office of part-time fire chief to an elected position. The current fire chief shall continue to hold the office until the 2020 annual town meeting election, at which time, the town will elect a part-time fire chief. If adopted, the authority of the town to elect the fire chief shall continue in effect until changed by a majority vote at an annual or special meeting. Warrant article is not recommended by town’s Board of Selectmen in a vote of (5-0-0).”

This warrant article, brought forward by a citizen’s petition, will require voters to determine what is best for the community and the town’s fire department by either keeping the current part-time fire chief or returning the position of chief back to the voters to be elected.

This petitioned article came forward following concerns when the town’s Code Enforcement Officer/Building Inspector Kevin Lynch turned in his letter of resignation to Fire Chief Frank Fraitzl. This happened after the chief became Lynch’s direct supervisor when the building inspections became part of the fire department.

During a selectmen’s meeting, several community members spoke about the situation during the public input. They were upset by the retirement of Lynch and even more so when the selectmen advised them they could not talk about it, as it was a personnel matter. The lack of transparency and concern to hear the citizens by the board of selectmen and the continued lack of response angered many. Since that meeting, a group of residents came forward and pushed through the citizens’ petition to remove the part-time chief and relate back to an elected chief.

The HLN sat down with Fire Chief Frank Fraitzl to talk about the petition and the controversy. Joe Cabral and Tracy, two of the backers moving the petition forward, spoke with the HLN on Tuesday afternoon expressing their reasons for wanted an elected fire chief.

Chief Fraitzl said he believes the petition warrant article is retribution toward the chief related to Lynch’s resignation and has nothing to do with the operations of the department. The Litchfield Board of Selectmen brought forward the move to combine the town’s building inspections as part of the fire department. Fraitzl had suggested from the beginning that the move be held off until Lynch retired and then move forward with the new plan. The board of selectmen instructed the chief to move forward before that time. Joe and Tracy said with their research they found the building inspector’s office was running efficiently and did not need to be changed.

Both Joe and Tracy adamantly deny that Petition Warrant Article 13 is retribution toward the chief. They said, according to their research, the building inspections office was running efficiently and did not need to be changed. Speaking on Lynch’s resignation, they truly believe Lynch was treated unethically and was given the option of resigning or being fired and feel that Fraitzl wronged Lynch. They said there was history between Fraitzl and Lynch when they both worked with the Town of Milford and the board of selectmen knew this, yet moved Lynch under Fraitzl anyway. It was also reported that the fire chief used GPS to monitor every move made by Lynch while he was completing his duties for the town.

They went on to say that several past members of the fire department resigned their positions and have complaints about the treatment they received, but that no one in the department dares go against the chief because, if they did, there would be retaliation. Joe Cabral stated a large number of fire department personnel defended the chief and the chief’s position at the town meeting. But he said those that did not get up and speak in favor of the chief were spoken to after the meeting was over. He said some members on the department still feel they are not treated fairly but are afraid to come forward due to what might happen to them.

The fire chief said that he has lost some members due to the policies and other decisions that he has put forward in the fire department to bring continuity, structure, and accountability to the department; something that was truly lacking in the past. The chief, deputy and president of the Litchfield Firefighters Relief Association all said these policies were much needed and have brought a great deal of morale, dedication and teamwork back into the department. The number of firefighters who spoke at the town meeting in favor of keeping the chief’s position appears to show the change within the department.

Tracy discussed the increase in the department budget since Fraitzl took over. She said training is one area that should be cut back. As Litchfield is a small town of nearly 9,000 people, the fire department has operated as if it’s a very large town or small city. She called some of the training firefighters undergo excessive and said overtime should be cut for the full-time members participating in in-house training. Tracy said that the chief could rearrange schedules to have the full-time members leave three hours early on training days so when they return for night training the overtime costs for this training could be cut back. Members within the department should provide in-house training to cut costs, she said. One complaint Tracy voiced was that the chief won’t take any outside suggestions, and the high budget hurts the taxpayer pocket book.

Chief Fraitzl said that any town in America, no matter its size, will deal with some type of natural disaster, large fire or some other large incident within its borders. Training is an essential part of the department’s operation, so when the large incident takes place, Litchfield firefighters are ready to deal with whatever is thrown at them. The training budget increased because outside training agencies are brought, and professional instructors provide the needed skills to firefighters. The fire department has instructors within the house, but specialized training requires experts in that field to provide the needed skills and education in these fields. Since Fraitzl took over as chief, the training that the town’s firefighters have obtained has increased to levels never seen before. These certifications include Firefighter II, EMT, and the addition of four paramedics along with many specialized training certifications. Before, the town’s firefighters had to search out their own training and re-certifications, now the department belongs to a conglomerate of area towns that all hold the same drills, so, if a department member misses the drill in town, they can receive the same training on a later date in another town. This ensures their training remains up to date.

The chief also spoke about the promotions of the fire officers within the department. Before he came on, the elected fire chief could and did promote people without any type of testing or promotional procedure to ensure the town was getting qualified and well-trained fire officers. Fraitzl put into effect a promotional procedure and testing that included oral boards from fire service personnel from outside the department to ensure the continuity and fairness of procedures.

Joe Cabral spoke about an incident earlier in the year when firefighters were ordered to drive a fire engine that they felt had a defective brake system despite expressing their concerns. Although the fire chief did not mention any particular instances of mechanical issues, he stated that the department has brought on a firefighter/mechanic to deal with many of the in-house mechanical issues. Having this mechanic in-house has saved the taxpayers a considerable amount of money by eliminating trucks being taken to a local dealer or mechanic shop for small repairs.

Cabral commented that it appears a very big concern that was brought forward was the relationship between Board of Selectmen Chairman Brent Lemire, Fraitzl and other members of the board. This is a conflict of interest in Joe’s opinion. Both Lemire and Fraitzl serve with the New Hampshire Fire Chiefs Association and a have a very good friendship. Another conflict, according to Joe, is that Lemire serves as the chairman of MRI, the company that completes many of the town’s department evaluations. And it appears that Lemire dictates the board of selectmen’s actions and sensors other members.

Some of what are seen as perks the fire chief receives also have caused much discussion and discontent within the town. One is the use of the town’s incident command vehicle for the chief to travel in and take home after a shift is completed. Cabral presented photos of the fire command vehicle parked at the chief’s home on what he called numerous occasions and also at his place of business. They feel the car being out of town creates a situation that would hinder the operations of an emergency scene, and, if the chief needs a vehicle, he could use one of the department’s other utility vehicles.

Also what brought much discussion was the $5,000 bonus the chief received for the construction of the new fire station. Cabral said many people within the town are disgusted with the payment and was told that’s how towns do things now.

Chief Fraitzl spoke on both of these issues and stated both were within his contract, which was negotiated with the Town of Litchfield and was approved by the town’s board of selectmen. Today the chief drives his own personal vehicle to and from the fire station. It should be noted that the standard for fire chief vehicles in the towns surrounding Litchfield are low profile without official markings.

Article 13 does not specifically outline what qualifications an elected chief would need to bring to his or her position. This lack of certification brings great concern to the fire chief and the firefighters within town. The president of the Litchfield Firefighters Relief Association, Paul Kelly, said the town could end up with a chief that has no training at all, and that is a great safety concern. That concern would affect not only the firefighters, but the citizens of Litchfield as a whole. The state RSAs are very vague on what actually are the requirements for a state elected fire chief, and some serious consideration would be needed if the elected position is put back in place. At this time, Litchfield requires the fire chief to have a bachelor’s degree in fire science or a related field, Firefighter II, EMT, and at least five years of supervisory experience, state instructor, fire inspection, and fire officer certifications. Now the department has consistency, but if the chief were to be elected, the department again could be put into a time of turmoil as the new chief brought the changes that he felt necessary. If the elected chief was not qualified, this could cause many issues not only within the department, but also for residents and the town.

With an appointed fire chief, the selectmen have the authority of checks and balances; with an elected chief they lose that.

The petitioners would have the position filled by a person elected by the town’s residents, but the department’s deputy chief would run the day-to-day operations, and monies from the chief’s position would be used to hire a third firefighter. They could not give a detailed training and experience requirement for the elected chief as that would be the responsibility of the board of selectmen to formulate required qualifications for the town. They added that, if the town went back to the elected fire chief, many of the firefighters who had resigned in the past would come back to the department.

Chief Fraitzl commented that he has brought a business model to the town’s fire department, which has greatly improved the service, response and protection of residents. He believes the town’s firefighters are much more equipped, trained and ready to handle today’s emergencies including emergency medical, fire and special hazards responses.

Warrant Article 13’s petitioners don’t agree; they believe the department has grown more than the town needs; that its budget is too high; and the needed transparency and ethical values are a great issue.

At the polls on March 12, Litchfield voters will select a side and decide where the town will go from here.