Writing a new personnel policy is never easy. But writing one in the middle of a crisis, well, that can be downright painful.

“This just sickens me — the whole thing does,” Portland Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said in a telephone interview Saturday.

He’s talking, of course, about the city’s $3.2 million fireboat, the City of Portland IV, now awaiting $38,000 in repairs after two Portland firefighters took a dozen of their family members and/or friends out for a “training exercise” on Portland Harbor last weekend.

We’ll never know for sure how commonplace such shenanigans have been over the years out there on beautiful Casco Bay — apparently no records exist to document who’s aboard either of the city’s two fireboats when they’re out there tooling around the harbor.

Come to think of it, we’d likely know nothing about last weekend’s joyride had the City of Portland IV not struck an underwater object near Fort Gorges, knocking out one of its two propellers and drive shafts and damaging the rudder.

But this much we do know: The two firefighters, Capt. Christopher Goodall and Joseph Murphy, have been suspended for 10 days and three days, respectively — although not quite for the reasons you may think.

According to a statement released late Friday by City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg, an investigation by LaMontagne concluded that Goodall and Murphy “failed to comply with common practices and U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules to ensure the safe operation of the vessel.”

Meaning they hit an underwater object in an area notorious for, well, underwater objects. And if you navigate by the Coast Guard’s rules, that kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen.

But what about the gaggle of civilians aboard at the time? Isn’t there a rule against that?

Apparently not. At least until now.

LaMontagne, while declining to discuss the details of what he’d previously labeled a “preventable event,” said the decision on who’s allowed aboard the fireboat (and who isn’t) has traditionally been left to the “discretion of the crew, the captain, the deputy chief and the chief.”

“But ultimately it’s my department and I’m responsible for their actions,” he said. “And for the culture.”

Which brings us to the underlying reason the entire Portland Fire Department now finds itself on the hot seat: When you operate the state’s largest fire department via “discretion” and “culture” rather than by an explicit set of rules, it’s only a matter of time before something utterly “preventable” blows up in your face.

LaMontagne was nowhere to be found Friday when City Hall issued its news release announcing that the two firefighters had been suspended and that due to “procedures set forth in collective bargaining agreements, no further information can be released to the public at this time.”

But to his credit on Saturday, LaMontagne stepped out from behind the carefully worded news release to answer a few questions and, better late than never, take some of the heat.

Goodall and Murphy, it turns out, were among a number of Portland firefighters honored at an awards ceremony on Oct. 15 for helping to rescue a man seriously injured in a fall on Great Diamond Island in August. According to the rumor mill, the boat ride that evening was a reward of sorts for their job well done.

Any truth to that? Did the chief know beforehand that the two firefighters would cap off the day by packing the fireboat with friends and family and motoring out for a sunset “training” cruise?

“No,” LaMontagne said. “I did not know these guys were going out.”

Nor, he said, did anyone else in the department know — except for the dispatcher who acknowledged the firefighters’ radio call “that they were headed out” on the water.

Then there are the reports now flooding the waterfront that this was hardly the first time the fireboat has been pressed into, shall we say, unofficial duty.

“We see this all the time,” said Mark Usinger, operator of A.L. Griffin Ship Chandlers on Hobson’s Wharf, in an interview Friday. “You’ll see the wives and the girlfriends on board and you know damn well they’re not firefighters and you know damn well they’re not on a training exercise. I’ve seen children on the fireboat heading up the (Fore) River. We’ve all seen it. Everybody on the working waterfront sees it. We all know it’s going on.”

Want to tackle that one, Chief?

“Perception may not necessarily be the reality,” LaMontagne replied, noting that the presence of nondepartment personnel aboard the fireboat — on official tours, or maybe accompanying a patient being transported to the mainland — is not an uncommon occurrence.

Maybe that explains all the civilian sightings … and maybe it doesn’t.

But without any record of who’s been on the fireboat and why, LaMontagne now finds himself unable to categorically disprove claims by guys like Usinger that the fireboat is moonlighting as Party Central.

And in the absence of a written policy that explicitly says “don’t do that,” he and his command staff ultimately have no one but themselves to blame when a couple of their firefighters head out for a little harmless fun and, oops, run into a $38,000 repair bill.

Some would call this whole mess a no-brainer — if firefighters routinely resist the urge to hoist the wives and kids aboard Ladder 1 for a ride up and down Congress Street, then how could anyone consider it acceptable to chauffeur them around Casco Bay on a $3.2 million fireboat?

LaMontagne has no easy answer for that one — except to say that in his 27-plus years with the department, his family has never once gone for a ride aboard the most visible vessel in the harbor.

And much as the chief regrets having to admit it, that common-sense message has somehow failed to trickle down through the department he’s headed for the past nine years.

“It’s upsetting to me personally and professionally,” said LaMontagne. “And you can feel comfortable, and so can the citizens, that all of this will be tightened up and the discretionary component will be eliminated.”

So much for the water-cannon fights.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]