WESTFIELD - No matter the hour or weather, Westfield's volunteer firemen hurry to help when the alarm sounds over the Clinton Street fire hall.
Many times their response means a life saved or a potentially dangerous fire kept contained.
The men and women responding are likely to be members of both the fire department and its fraternal Exempt Volunteers Association or "exempts." The two separate organizations have about an 80 percent overlapping membership.
Photo by Dave O’Connor
Members of the Westfield Fire Department and Exempt Association listen during the May 1 Board of Fire Commissioner’s meeting in Eason Hall. There are smoldering tensions among the two organizations and the fire commissioners regarding the exempts.
Village of Westfield Mayor David Carr, among those interviewed for this article, acknowledges the common membership, but believes the separation of the two organizations needs to be emphasized.
"People in the village thought the two (fire department and exempts) were the same, and they are not the same," Carr said as he explained the formation of the Board of Fire Commissioners which now oversees the village fire department.
The fire commission was authorized by the Village Board of Trustees in March of 2011, and became active two months later.
In a letter published in the April 26, 2012, edition of this newspaper, Mayor Carr wrote that the exempts raised money in the name of the fire department, but haven't used the funds "for the direct benefit" of the department.
Chairman of the commission, Barry Underwood, agrees with the mayor and adds, "Our focus is the management of the fire department and taxpayer dollars."
Jim Pacanowski, a 48-year fire department member disagrees.
"All the commissioners want to do is get control of our (exempts) money," he said.
Former chief and 40-year fire department member Lyle Holland agrees with Pacanowski.
"They (Mayor Carr, the village board and fire commission) want to take our (exempts) money, and we have needs of our own," he said.
Holland said the exempts, like the fire department, are interested in all aspects of community service. Thus, he points out, the exempts' hall on Bourne Street has been available at no cost to many community and fraternal organizations for meetings and fundraising. The hall's costs fall on the exempts and is "taking all our money," Holland explained.
A few months ago the organization placed its Bourne Street headquarters on the market, but so far it's no sale.
Underwood maintains the fire commission is aware of the exempts' good works.
"I'm not saying they don't contribute to the community," he said.
Asked why the fire commissioners have forbidden the exempts from conducting any business in the fire hall Underwood replied, "To clarify fundraising efforts by both organizations."
These developments are discouraging to exempts like Holland and Pacanowski.
"I love the fire service," Holland said. "(The events of the past year) have brought me to a point where I hate to go to a meeting."
Holland believes the fire commission is not necessary.
"We've taken care of ourselves for 139 years," he said.
The Westfield department celebrates its 140th anniversary this year.
Judd Storms, a member of both organizations, believes the village government is missing the larger points about both - the amount of time, effort and sacrifice given at no cost by the men and women who belong to the fire department and exempts. Storms has opposed Carr in the past two mayoral elections.
In a recent development, Holland was recommended by fire department members for a seat on the fire board. Commissioner Jack Rabb's term expired in April and the fire department members believed they could elect one of the five commissioners. Underwood explained this is not the case, saying Mayor Carr can recommend names for all five seats. The mayor did not accept the recommendation of Holland and instead reappointed Rabb, Underwood disclosed.
Regarding Rabb's reappointment, Mayor Carr said it was a decision of the fire commissioners.
"The Board of Fire Commissioners and (fire) chiefs thought that Jack Rabb was a better choice," he said.
"We agreed with it," Carr responded when asked about his and the village board's reaction to Rabb's reappointment.
Pacanowski cited the refusal to seat Holland as an example of the village ignoring the fire department and exempts.
"I wish they'd work with us rather than fight us," he lamented.
Jenna Loughlin contributed to this story.