PORTLAND — An arbitrator has ordered the city to pay more than $1,100 in back wages to two firefighters who were suspended without pay after damaging the city’s $3.2 million fireboat, the city said Tuesday in a press release.

The city said it will not release any additional information about the Oct. 15, 2011, incident, and considers the arbitrator’s report the final word in the matter.

The city’s fireboat, Portland IV, sustained $52,000 in damages when it struck an underwater object near Fort Gorges on a sunset training mission that included a dozen family and friends of one of the firefighters.

The arbitrator found that fireboat should not have left the marked channel, and when it did leave the channel, the pilot should have navigated around “marked hazards in a safe manner,” the city said.

The captain/engineer should have alerted the pilot to the marked hazards, but failed to do so and should have been more aware of his surroundings.

The city suspended two firefighters without pay. Capt. Christopher Goodall was suspended for 80 hours and Pilot Joseph Murphy was suspended for 24 hours.

Both firefighters appealed their punishments, a process that required a professional arbitrator to resolve.

The arbitrator, attorney Gary Altman, reduced those suspensions to 48 hours for Goodall and 12 hours for Murphy, citing their good employment histories and a lack of clarity regarding staffing on the fireboat.

City Hall Spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Goodall, who makes $27.44 an hour, will be paid $878.08 in back wages, while Murphy, who makes $23.19 an hour, will be repaid $278.28.

The city previously said it would release a full account of the fireboat incidents, which was interpreted by many as meaning it would release LaMontagne’s report. Now, the city says it will not release the internal report, and neither party is authorized to comment on the incident.

Clegg said the city can’t release the report because it is part of the personnel file. The only public document is the arbitrator’s report, she said.

“We were consistent all along we would release a final decision,” Clegg said. “We will release what we can legally release.”

The city’s internal investigation found that Goodall invited a dozen family and friends aboard the fireboat last October. The accident caused $52,000 in damage.

The firefighters were not punished for having civilians aboard because the city did not have a policy against it. The city has since restricted civilians from being on the fireboat, and all non-emergency use must be cleared in advance by the city manager.

An investigation by the Portland Press Herald reveled that two thirds of all fireboat trips in 2010 were for non-emergency purposes.

The city did not immediately report the 2011 accident to the U.S. Coast Guard, as required. City Manager Mark Rees took heat from the City Council about failing to notify them about the incident, an oversight for which Rees issued a public apology.

“With a final decision now rendered, I look forward to putting this matter behind the department and the city,” Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said in a written statement.

LaMoria was recently hired to replace Fred LaMontagne, who retired last spring.

The 2011 accident was the city’s fireboat’s second. In 2009, the boat hit a ledge in Whitehead Passage, the channel between Peaks and Cushing islands, sustaining $90,000 worth of damage.

According to the arbitrator’s report, Goodall was in command of the boat while Murphy was piloting the vessel when it left the shore around 5:16 p.m. on Oct. 15, 2011.

The boat was equipped with navigational electronics, including radar, depth sounders, navigational tracking plotters and paper charts, the report states.

The fireboat left the “Destroyer Channel” between Fort Gorges and Little Diamond Island around 5:55 p.m. A minute later, the boat entered an area north of Fort Gorges that has a shoal and marked obstructions.

Goodall was responsible for determining staffing on what was described by the city as a “training run.”

Murphy was responsible for safely navigating around marked obstructions, but did not do so, since Goodall did not alert him to the obstacle.

“As engineer, (Goodall) should have alerted the pilot to possible hazards and, as lookout, should have been more aware of his surroundings,” Altman wrote.

On some calls, three crew members are required to be aboard – a deckhand, engineer and a pilot, but Altman found the city’s policy on three-member crews unclear.

Clegg said the city has since clarified that policy.

Training of fireboat pilots emerged as an issue after the accident. The city does not require pilots to get a license from the U.S. Coast Guard. Instead, the city trains pilots in-house, a practice recently re-affirmed by an independent consultant.

Altman commended both the city and the firefighters for their handling of the incident, “in the face of public scrutiny.” The city updated its policies, while the firefighters accepted responsibility for their roles, he said.

“These actions are a positive step towards minimizing the possibility of this type of incident happening again in the future,” he wrote.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:
rbillings@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @randybillings