Quick end to fire department drama critical
Published 5:20 pm, Thursday, February 23, 2012
The Fire Commission has met twice in the past week behind closed doors to discuss an unspecified "personnel issue" as unconfirmed reports of friction in the Fire Department's highest ranks continue to smolder.
Before the seven-member commission met in a special meeting Feb. 15, rumors that Fire Chief Richard Felner and one of his six assistant chiefs, George Gomola, had engaged in a physical altercation had spread through town like a fast-moving grass fire.
The chief, a Fairfield firefighter for nearly 55 years, had been on vacation for two weeks but appeared before the commission in a closed-door meeting last Saturday and returned to work this week.
The longer this mystery plays out, the more serious the questions about the department's leadership become.
Reputations, too, remain in question -- deservedly or undeservedly. And the rank and file and the public are left to wonder.
The Fire Department functions with a hierarchy under which people must follow the orders of their superiors. If they don't, the consequences could be deadly -- for civilians and public-safety personnel alike.
At the same time, the truest respect of subordinates must be earned not once but reaffirmed continually.
Felner, the chief since 1998, said in the interview he was aware of rumors of an altercation, said they had been exaggerated and called reports of a dispute with Gomola "B.S."
The seven-member Fire Commission is permitted to go into executive session when discussing personnel matters. But it has taken no votes after a pair of two-hour meetings and has had nothing to say about what's going on.
All three members of the Board of Selectmen attended the Feb. 15 session, along with a trio of lawyers representing the town.
We hope the commission investigates fully and acts swiftly.
The Fire Department engages in life-and-death situations almost daily, and stability in the department's chain of command is essential.
Felner oversees a department with a corps of nearly 100 firefighters and officers, five fire stations and a training facility and an operation that is on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Last year, the department says, it answered 9,200 calls.
The chief administers a budget of more than $13 million and a payroll of more than $7 million, plus dozens of vehicles and sophisticated apparatus worth millions of dollars.
The department's influence extends beyond fire protection.
In Fairfield, it is the emergency medical services first responder.
Fire apparatus also responds to motor vehicle accidents on local roads, plus I-95 and the Merritt Parkway. And unlike some other fire departments, Fairfield's is trained to respond to hazardous materials spills.
The title bestowed on local firefighters -- "Fairfield's bravest" -- is well deserved. And those courageous people deserve to be managed as well as possible, with nothing clouding their faith in the department's leadership.
Right now, smoke remains in the air at fire headquarters on Reef Road. We hope the Fire Commission quickly clears it, explains what happened and takes fair and decisive action.
The rank-and-file firefighters and officers deserve no less. Neither do taxpayers.