Donna Miller got good news on Jan. 14: she would be able to continue as a member of the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department, even though a back injury will prevent her from ever again responding to a call.
She learned that, as long as she keeps up on her training, she can continue to play a role in the department, such as as a trainer.
But, Miller’s celebration was muted as four members of the department resigned and/or retired the same night.
“It was very sad, what happened tonight,” she said.
While Greg Mead, a department trustee, said he was hanging up his helmet after 25 years because he often works 14 to 16 hours a day at his day job, three others left for far different reasons. At lease seven volunteers have left since Fire Chief David Masirovits started work in October, many bristling at the way Masirovits has run the department.
“I felt like we were being pushed out as a volunteer organization,” said Cliff Elliott, who was president of the volunteers until he retired after 33 years.
Elliott had been a captain of the volunteers. In what Masirovits called a department restructuring, he changed Elliott’s rank to lieutenant. Kenny Johnson, who had been volunteer vice president and assistant chief, was made a captain. Both men considered the changes to be demotions.
“Nobody was demoted,” Masirovits said. “There was not a demotion. There was simply a restructuring of the department.”
He noted that the paid position of assistant chief had been eliminated some years ago, but the volunteer position of assistant chief remained.
“That is very misinformative to people outside of the department looking in, especially in an emergency situation where firefighters tend to go towards the white helmet, for lack of better terms,” Masirovits said.
Chiefs and assistant chiefs wear white helmets, making them easy to identify at an emergency scene. However, in Brookfield, the paid members of the department are higher in the chain of command than the volunteers.
“I felt restructuring the department would bring it more in line with today’s fire service, not having the assistant chief on the career side,” Masirovits said. “I simply renamed the assistant chief of the volunteers captain, and renamed the captain of the volunteer side to lieutenant.”
One of the policy changes that has rankled some members of the volunteer ranks, particularly those in Hartford, is the prohibition on full beards. Masirovits said this provision of the respiratory protection policy, which derives from federal guidelines, has to do with properly fitting an air mask on a firefighter. A full beard prevents a proper seal, which could cause a firefighter to breathe in toxic fumes.
Mustaches and goatees are fine, as long as there is no more than 24-hours’ growth of beard on the part of the face where the mask touches the face, Masirovits said.
Elliott said the policy eliminates volunteers who would drive a truck, man the hoses and monitor the pumps, but stay outside a burning structure.
Masirovits said you can’t have two classes of firefighters. He gave a scenario where there is a building collapse or a firefighter down. He can’t imagine an “outside guy” not entering a building to try to save a fallen comrade.
The contract between the township and the volunteers lapsed Dec. 31. Johnson and Elliott said that was an issue for them. Trustee Dan Suttles has expressed frustration at what he perceives as too slow a pace of review by township attorney Gil Blair.
Masirovits said he did not believe the lack of a contract has affected operations.
“The trustees are working on that,” he said. “I believe that to be in the legal department right now and being looked at. With development of job descriptions and the reorganization of the department, some of the verbiage in the contract has to change.”
Johnson, a 35-year volunteer, said he had been thinking about retiring for some time, and the changes were “a little more of a push for me to go now.” He said he understands why Masirovits implemented some of the changes, but not how they were done.
“I think it’s a lot of change too fast,” Johnson said.
Some of the changes are administrative and philosophical, such as dealing with time cards and hygiene and setting a mission statement, Masirovits said, but others, including for infection control, safe driving and safe structural firefighting, are safety measures.
“Every policy that I’ve released, everything that I’ve done, has been for the safety of the men, the safety of the residents,” he said. “It’s my job to protect these people; that’s what I was sworn to do, while upholding the laws and the standards and the regulations set forth by the governing agencies. That’s what I’m doing and feel that some of their departures are based upon that. Some of them work for other departments, and they’re well aware of the regulations and standards, which is something that hasn’t been implemented here in Brookfield before.”
The rift has caused a reduction in volunteer participation, Elliot and Johnson said, and both men predicted more volunteers will leave.
Masirovits told those who resigned or retired Jan. 14 that “what I’m doing is not against you,” but Elliott responded, “It sure seems that way, chief.”
Jerad Fisher, who also resigned, said things have been going “down hill.”
Still, Masirovits thanked the men for their service.
“You don’t want to lose anyone,” he said in a Jan. 15 interview. “Everyone’s an asset to the organization in one way or another. I appreciate their service. Over 100 years of service have left the department in the last week or so. That’s gonna be missed. I’m not going to be able to replace that.”
Volunteer Randy Richman called the retirements “bittersweet.”
“With almost 100 years of combined experience, it’s definitely difficult to think about those guys not being around,” he said.
“They know the ins and outs of this community through their years of service and living here,” Richman said. “These gentlemen volunteered their time, when not working their regular 40-60 hour a week job/profession, to help those in their community.”
The retirees helped train the next generation, he said, and “I’m grateful for what they’ve taught us and honored to have worked beside them on calls and special events that supported the FD and community.”