Chief: Proposed fire district refueling policy could put lives at risk
A new refueling policy at Dartmouth Fire District No. 1 could put lives at risk, according to Chief Brad Ellis, while the committee which made the decision says it could reduce liability and save the district money.
The new policy was approved by the District No. 1 Prudential Committee, a three-member elected board which oversees the finances and operation of the district.
It bans the use of the district’s on-site 1,000 gallon state licensed gas tank for refueling the district's emergency vehicles and equipment like snowblowers, boats, and jaws of life. Instead, firefighters would have to fill up at the Department of Public Works yard some three miles away from the station. Currently, the District fuels up at a local service station.
The change, however, is marred by confusing regulatory approval and jurisdiction, and what Ellis said are critical safety issues with the change.
“We’re talking about public safety,” Ellis said. “I feel it the best interest of the public of Fire District 1 in town to keep the gas tank on site.”
At the Nov. 6 Select Board meeting, Ellis said in an emergency, like a causeway malfunction or flooding, the department will be forced to take costly and time-consuming detours for fuel.
“Any time that the causeway is shut down due to bridge malfunction means we have to almost double or triple our ability to get somewhere,” Ellis said. “If the Paskamansett Brook floods over, we’ve got to go all the way up to Route 6 to get down to the DPW. That’s 30 miles around and back again.”
Even from a financial standpoint, Ellis said fueling up at the DPW didn’t make sense, as the department could burn a gallon of gas just on the trip there and back.
John Haran, a member of both the Select Board and the Prudential Committee, explained the Committee’s rationale behind the change.
He said that in the past, there was a period of two and a half years where the district did not have fuel on site and that fuel has been stolen from the district. In 2014, former firefighter Troy DeCouto pleaded guilty to stealing gas from the district's tank to fill his personal vehicle. DeCouto later attempted to run for Prudential Committee, but lost his election bid.
Chief Ellis said that the District received initial approval from the Prudential Committee and voters in the District for a key fob system that would limit access to the pump to specific vehicles, but was later told not to purchase the system by the Prudential Committee.
“How many in this room would drive three miles to save three dollars, save thirty cents per gallon?” he asked. “I think quite a few would.”
Haran also referenced a report on the district from earlier this year which noted the potential liability if the tank ruptured or leaked.
“The position of the Prudential Committee is that we would like to see any liabilities removed from the site,” Haran said.
To make matters more complicated, the fire district cannot use gas from the DPW without approval from the Select Board, Finance Director, and the Director of the DPW. An agreement is currently in draft form and has not yet been approved, according to Town Administrator Shawn MacInnes.
After back and forth arguments by both Ellis and Haran regarding the issue, Select Board Chair Shawn McDonald broke in with frustration about the dysfunctional system of fire districts in town, which operate as separate entities, which he says is very unlikely to change.
“I don’t know how to say this nicely,” McDonald began. “Sitting on this board, I could care less about the problems between the Fire Chief and the Prudential Committee. That’s both you guys. And that probably came out wrong, and I’m sorry.”
Member Frank Gracie said that the Select Board was not able to mediate the conflict or decide what should happen. Its main authority is to allow the town to sell fuel to the district if that was the agreed upon conclusion.
“I’m sitting here as a citizen, I live in this district, and I’m hearing the fire chief talking about safety and the chair of the district saying you can save fifty cents a gallon,” member David Tatelbaum said. “This sounds terrible. It sounds almost scary.”
Tatelbaum asked Fire District No. 1 to reach a consensus.
“At this point, it’s sophomoric as far as I’m concerned,” said member Stanley Mickelson. “Doggone it, why can’t you guys get along? It’s mind boggling. You’ve got Mr. Haran over here sitting on two chairs, it doesn’t make sense to me. Who can he represent? Neither one, at this point.”
The Board did not vote on the agreement to share gas with the DPW. McDonald encouraged residents in District No. 1 to get in touch with the Prudential Committee to share their opinions. Chairman of the Prudential Committee John Haran can be contacted through the town’s website at town.dartmouth.ma.us.