PORTLAND — The City of Portland IV is not a pleasure craft and should not be used as one, City Manager Mark Rees said Monday.
Speaking publicly for the first time since an accident Oct. 15 caused an estimated $38,000 worth of damage to the $3.2 million fireboat, Rees said he was “astounded” by the revelation that a dozen friends and family members of a firefighter were on board at the time, shortly before sunset on a Saturday.
“I was appalled to find out that civilians were on that ship,” Rees said. “I let my position be known in no uncertain terms to the fire chief that it was totally unacceptable and that we need to make sure something like this never happens again.”
All 12 civilians were guests of Capt. Christopher Goodall, a 13-year veteran of the department who was promoted six months ago to the Marine Division. On Friday, Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne suspended Goodall without pay for 10 days.
LaMontagne also suspended firefighter Joseph Murphy, who piloted the boat that day, for three days.
“Based on what the chief has told me and a review of the logs, I consider what happened last weekend an anomaly,” Rees said. “But it certainly points to a definite need to make sure we have very clear … guidelines.”
The accident occurred north of Fort Gorges about two hours before low tide. The impact with an underwater object that has yet to be identified sheared off a shaft and damaged a propeller and the boat’s rudder.
The damage can’t be repaired until some parts become available. City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said she hopes that will happen this week.
The accident was the second for the two-year-old fireboat. In November 2009, during an emergency call, the boat hit a ledge in Whitehead Passage, between Peaks and Cushing islands. The repairs cost $90,000 and the boat was out of service for three months.
After an investigation, LaMontagne concluded that the accident was preventable but the crew made no egregious errors. No one was disciplined.
The accident did prompt a $3,000 increase in the city’s marine terminal operator’s insurance policy in March 2010. Any effect of the latest accident won’t be known until the policy comes up for renewal in 2012.
Rees said the city will explore whether pilots of the fireboats should be licensed by the Coast Guard. It’s not a current requirement.
Only two of the eight permanent pilots in the Fire Department’s Marine Division hold Coast Guard licenses. Four others are in training. Four firefighters in other stations can cover Marine Division shifts, and two of them hold Coast Guard licenses.
“Obviously, there’s costs associated with that, so there’s always that balancing,” Rees said. “But considering the asset and the uniqueness of it, I think that having proper certification for the operation of those boats is something we really want to move forward on.”
City officials would not describe the circumstances that brought civilians on board the fireboat. Rees said their presence was discovered because of the accident, but it wasn’t considered a cause or a contributing factor.
Goodall earns $59,929 a year. Murphy, a 24-year veteran of the department, makes $50,647. Neither man has been disciplined in the past.
Rees, who is LaMontagne’s immediate superior and the city’s top administrator, said no one else faces discipline in the incident.
Clegg would not release LaMontagne’s investigative report, saying state law and the labor contract prohibit it. The information will remain confidential, she said, until any disciplinary issues are concluded. The final decision will become public if it imposes discipline.
The leader of the firefighters union said he was looking into the appeals process but would not comment further because it is a personnel issue.
“They’re two decorated employees,” said John Brooks, president of Local 740 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “They’re dedicated to the citizens of Portland. They’ll drop what they’re doing when the bell goes off and they’re not going to ask questions.”
It’s not clear when the Coast Guard will finish the investigation it has begun. The accident, which did not involve injury, death, other vessels or the Coast Guard, is not high on the priority list, said Lt. Nick Barrow.
He said the investigation’s aim is to determine whether there are hazards in the waterway that must be addressed.
“This is not the sort of investigation that is attributional,” Barrow said, “or expected to be disciplinary in nature.”
Roger Lehoux of Saco said he captured images of the fireboat on the day of the accident. Lehoux, a photography buff, was taking shots of the sunset and Portland Harbor from Bug Light Park in South Portland.
“I just thought it was peculiar,” Lehoux said of the passengers on the fireboat. “I’ve seen it go out a bunch of times. I’ve never seen it look like a party boat.”
Lehoux said he disapproves of using an emergency vehicle as a pleasure boat. He said he is a former volunteer firefighter in Sanford and a former fire brigade member at Pratt & Whitney in North Berwick.
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