By Dave O'Connor
WESTFIELD - Resignations by two assistant chiefs recently have shaken the Westfield Fire Department.
"I'm not going to sugar-coat anything; there's a lot of turmoil in the department," Chief Steve Pacanowski said. "It's imploding, yes," he added.
Dave Davies and Brad Damcott, both longtime members, resigned effective Sept. 5, according to Barry Underwood, chairman of the village fire commission. Davies was chief of the Hook & Ladder Co. while Damcott was chief of Citizen Hose Co.
In addition Davies was first assistant chief; Damcott second assistant chief of the department.
"We're down a couple of fire chiefs," Underwood said. "I'm just disappointed that it's come to this,"
Asked about the reason for the loss, Pacanowski continued to be blunt, saying, "Political B.S. - lack of respect for line officers and chiefs."
Pacanowski also cited factionalism between "older members versus younger members" when he described problems in the department.
What Pacanowski termed "rumor mongering" in the department was, he said, at least partly responsible for Damcott's resignation. "It was affecting his personal life."
The chief would not outline the alleged rumor's content.
Underwood replied, "I just think frustration," when asked the reason for Davies resignation.
Davies sent the commission a letter of resignation effective Sept. 3, Under-wood disclosed.
Damcott announced his resignation to Pacanowski who in turn notified the fire commissioners at their meeting.
Pacanowski said the Citizen Hose Co. would formally accept Damcott's resignation, but Underwood said both resignations were accepted Tuesday, Sept. 3 by the fire commission.
One year ago at a regular village board meeting, Pacanowski accompanied by about 20 firefighters, read a letter excoriating the village administration "for continued mud slinging and slanderous comments regarding the members of the fire department."
"If this kind of disrespect and slander continues, you may find out the hard way just how much money 878.5 years of service actually saves the village," Pacanowski warned.
Lack of turn out in response to calls is another concern according to comments made publicly and off the record. An official in a neighboring municipality who asked not to be identified said other departments are aware of the sometimes inadequate response in Westfield. "You can hear it on the scanner," he said.
Members of the fire commission expressed concern during recent sessions about the response to recent fires in the towns of Portland and Westfield. Underwood has repeatedly stressed the need to recruit new volunteers. Longtime department member Lyle Holland said "five or six" new volunteers have recently joined, but noted the village has 52 firefighters compared to 78 in the early 1990s.
Underwood said he expects the fire commission will have nominations to fill the two leadership vacancies by Oct. 1, when it next meets. "We're going to let the department come up with suggestions," he said.
In the interim, Underwood said, Captains William Bills and Jerry Ruch will take charge of the Hook & Ladder Co. and Citizen Hose Co., respectively.
Debra Puckhaber, member of the village board and liaison between the board and village fire commission, said she remains upbeat about the future of the Westfield fire department in spite of what she termed "the present turmoil."
Puckhaber spoke after attending a special meeting of the fire commission Wednesday, Sept. 11 in Eason Hall. However, she did not comment about the session itself except to say it concerned a personnel matter in the fire department.
Village Administrator Vince Luce sent out email notifications of the unscheduled meeting Tuesday, Sept. 10 afternoon. Many attending the 7 p.m. session were surprised when Luce handed out the agenda and the only item was a closed executive session. Barry Underwood, commission chairman, said the body would discuss a "personnel matter" in private and then adjorn.
In addition to the fire commissioners, Steve Pacanowski, fire chief; Rob Genthner, police chief; Puckhaber and Luce stayed for the 24-minute executive session.
The special meeting came eight days after the commission accepted the resignations of two assistant chiefs, Dave Davies and Brad Damcott.
Pacanowski, interviewed the following day, said the department was "imploding."
However, one participant in the latest commission meeting said it was about one member of the department and nothing else. Underwood said the executive session did not involve a paid or contracted village employee.
When asked why some people who aren't commission members were allowed to attend its executive session while others were told to leave, he said the commission was allowed to make that decision.