— By

Staff Writer

WESTBROOK — The Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence will start working with members of the Westbrook Fire and Rescue Department next month to address sexual harassment problems.

The education program follows a civil lawsuit and administrative action against several firefighters.

The center began meeting with members of the department last summer to identify ongoing sexual harassment problems. A report by the center released Tuesday said communication in the department is ”seriously deficient and in some cases nonexistent.”

The report said members of the department, including officers and rank and file, demonstrate a ”high degree of passivity and aversion to working to proactively to improve the climate.”

”We have never seen a level of tension and anxiety among the staff that comes close to reaching the level which exists in the department,” Steve Wessler, executive director of the center said in the report. ”The tension is primarily related to two factors: first, the stress created by the seemingly never-ending sexual harassment crisis, and the lack of effective leadership within the department.”

Capt. Gerry Provencher, a 19-year veteran of the fire department, agreed with Wessler’s assessment. He said the department suffers from a lack of communication, poor accountability, ineffective leadership and micro-management from City Hall. Provencher did not meet with Wessler.

”I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but the person in the leadership position at the time missed the warning signs for whatever reason,” Provencher said. ”Any training that we can try to improve leadership will help. We haven’t had any meaningful leadership training for a couple of years.”

Former Fire Chief Gary Littlefield was put on leave in October 2008 as the city launched an investigation into sexual harassment complaints made by two female firefighters. He was replaced by Daniel Brock, who was dismissed in January.

Police Chief Bill Baker has stepped in to temporarily oversee the city’s Public Safety Services.

The city paid Wessler an estimated $40,000 to conduct the training, which includes workshops for officers, firefighters and rescue personnel on developing strategies to prevent and respond to conflict and harassment. There also will be workshops for developing and using communication skills. The training is expected to last three to four months.

”I think if it puts us on the right track it will be good for everyone,” said firefighter and paramedic Lisa MacVane. ”If the department can move forward and be at 100 percent, it will be a good step.”

Wessler plans to meet with Baker, City Administrator Jerre Bryant and Human Resources Director Kristy Gould to develop a plan to get firefighters Kathy Rogers and Lisa Theberge back to work.

Rogers and Theberge, who have been on paid administrative leave for more than a year, filed a lawsuit Oct. 21, alleging obscene sexual harassment and discriminatory behavior.

The complaint said several male firefighters, including the deputy chief, lieutenants and captains, engaged in incidents ranging from masturbation and pornography at the station to a sexual affair and sex at a fire department gathering.

City officials began an investigation into the complaints and disciplined seven firefighters in December 2008 for inappropriate actions and language in the workplace, or for failure to deal properly with issues that contributed to a hostile work environment.

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

[email protected]