SALEM — In part of because of the steep hill that divides the east and west sides of Salem, the town has long had two fire departments, but the conflicts and rivalries that started both companies continue to roil the community.
“Back a long time ago, before I was even born, there were issues between the older generation of firemen and fire women that were in the Salem Volunteer Fire Company and that’s what prompted them to open Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company. Unfortunately, those differences have been carried to the younger generation, who don’t even really understand why there was such hostility between the two town departments,” said Alex Blais, 31, a firefighter who joined the Salem Volunteer Fire Company at age 13.
The differences between the two fire stations could be said to go back as far as 1956 when Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company was formed, splitting off from the Salem Volunteer Fire Company, which was started in 1943.
The conflicts flared in May when Blais and seven other firefighters resigned from the Salem department, claiming a lack of fairness in new policies and departmental elections that were “popularity contests,” giving leadership roles to less qualified and less trained members.
All eight Salem firefighters joined Gardner Lake and the exodus has decimated staffing for the department they left behind. A recent fire on Round Hill Road, is case in point, Blais said.
“Gardner Lake showed up with 18 to 20 members and we had the fire under control within about 10 minutes. Gardner Lake had an emergency vehicle, a tanker and almost all the apparatus. Salem’s response had only brought in their ladder with one member driving — the fire chief.”
Neither Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden, nor Salem Volunteer Fire Company Chief Chip Weston, returned calls for comment on this story.
Ron Przech, formerly the deputy chief for the Salem company, was one of the eight who resigned and moved to Gardner Lake. He said that when he ran for chief against Chip Weston, who took over mid-term from longtime chief Eugene Mariano, the vote failed to follow established policy.
“Normally the department has an annual meeting and you need a certain number of points to vote to prove you’re active and have an understanding of what’s going on at the department, but with COVID things got screwy, so they decided to have an online vote,” said Przech.
Przech claims that even though Weston was running for chief, he was also in charge of the online survey, and was able to select who received the survey to vote. Weston was also the only one with access to the vote data, Przech said.
“I brought this up, saying, how is this not a conflict of interest? Basically it was shot down, the Board of Directors didn’t want to hear it,” Przech said. “Because of the way it was conducted, I requested a re-election but the response was, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Another firefighter of the eight, who asked to remain anonymous, said he tried without success to look at the bylaws because the leadership of the Salem company was putting firefighters on probation and not allowing members to vote for reasons that had not been stated in the past.
“I wasn’t allowed to vote. This was the first time in 10 years that I’ve ever gone to a company meeting where there was an election and not been allowed to vote in it. They said it was because I didn’t make all of our trainings for the year — but I wasn’t getting any trainings emailed to me and I told them multiple times that I wasn’t getting the email links,” he said.
And the conflict hasn’t kept within the department. In September, the Board of Selectmen voted to end the town’s Emergency Services Agreement with Gardner Lake — an move that would require the department to return its firefighting trucks and gear to Salem by June 30.
With that deadline looming, Gardner Lake sent the Board of Selectmen a letter on June 7, asking to hear back before June 14. So far, the company has received no response.
“And as far as the contract is concerned, they [ended] that last September, and have never reached out to us, ever, to sit and talk about it, to tell us why they canceled it. Nothing, nothing,” said Gardner Lake President Cheryl Philopena. “We have a short paragraph letter, ‘The Board from the Selectmen voted to cancel your contract,’ done. They never reached out to us, never asked to meet with us, never asked to hammer out a new contract, never told us what was wrong with the old contract. We’re, like, in the dark.”
The broken agreement is complicated by the fact that Gardner Lake owns the town’s sole ambulance, but cannot operate it without the town’s permission.
Further complicating the matter, Gardner Lake is also suing the town for breach of contract and seeking $28,900 from the town for volunteer stipends, which an attorney for the town said were violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, because two paid firefighters were also volunteering for the town.
Blais claims the problem stems from a survey performed for the town by an outside contractor.
“A lot of the information given to them between the two departments was misconstrued and misleading. It was actually chosen, I believe, by the first selectman, who was highly favortizing the Salem Volunteer Fire Company and had some differences with Gardner Lake Fire Company.”
According to Blais, the first selectman is trying to use the survey data to disband the Gardner Lake department and replace it with a single fire department based on the Salem company.
“The town really needs to know there’s a need for both departments, nobody should be disbanded,” Blais said.
He said that if the town takes the fire equipment and trucks from Gardner Lake on June 30, that the town will be at risk.
“The town is going to go unprotected because Salem Fire Company does not have members who are qualified to operate apparatus because all of the members who can operate it are now at Gardner Lake — all of the ones who are trained and qualified,” he said. “We are trying to renegotiate a new contract with the town and the Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company to keep the town protected and we want the townspeople to know how important that is.”