It started in October with the washing of a car.

For the firefighters and emergency medical technicians of the North Yarmouth Fire and Rescue Department, hosing down one’s vehicle outside the station was an unofficial longtime perk for volunteers/employees, who are only paid when they are on calls.

But a complaint about the practice from a North Yarmouth selectman in October triggered an escalating confrontation that, so far, has resulted in the firing of one of the town’s two paramedics and the resignation of the other.

Officials and residents in the town of nearly 4,000 have descended into a contentious debate about First Amendment rights, town protocol and chain of command for the quasi-employees. Underlying it all, according to current and former town officials and employees, are questions of power and respect – who in the town has it, who doesn’t, and who believes they are owed more.

Frustrated residents have turned out at Board of Selectmen meetings, taken to the Internet to defend the paramedics and called for the firing of the town manager, who was hired six months ago. Town officials, in turn, have clamped down on dissent during selectmen meetings, hired a sheriff’s deputy to attend one proceeding and once muted the local TV telecast when critical questions were deemed inappropriate.

“It’s not about car-washing. It’s way overgrown that now,” said Deputy Chief Bill Young, the paramedic who was reprimanded, then fired, then reinstated, and has now retained legal counsel. “If I will say one thing, (the situation) is unfortunate.”

NEW TRAINING, EXPANDED STAFFING

The turmoil comes at a time of transition for the fire department and for town government.

For the past three years, the North Yarmouth Fire Department had been under the leadership of Ricky Plummer, who had been hired to turn around a department struggling to recruit members and maintain service to town residents. Plummer, a veteran fire chief in Maine and Massachusetts, applied for and won a $200,000 training grant and trained 13 new emergency medical technicians and 22 firefighters.

None of the members, other than the chief, was making a living from the work. The town considers them employees and they earn hourly wages when they respond to calls, but all other aspects of the job are volunteer. It was for many members a labor of love, passion and pride.

Plummer said he was lucky to have the assistance of Young, who works as a full-time paramedic in Old Orchard Beach, but lives in North Yarmouth.

Paramedics are the most highly trained first responders and are capable of handling the most serious medical calls, such as those involving children or people experiencing heart trouble. Plummer promoted Young to EMS captain, and Young helped the new EMTs learn the ins-and-outs of working on an ambulance. Plummer also promoted another paramedic volunteer, Jeff Toorish, to lieutenant.

SMALL PERK, PRAISE FOR VOLUNTEERS

There was a new sense of pride and engagement from members, which is essential for employees who are paid very little, Plummer said. They make between $8 and $12 an hour while on a call, and officers receive an additional stipend.

A small perk of the job, Plummer said, was to allow volunteers to wash their cars at the station. The practice cost the town virtually nothing, and it encouraged members to hang around in case a call came in, he said.

It also sent a message from the town to the volunteers: We appreciate you, Plummer said.

“Not a lot of them washed their cars, but everybody knows they can,” he said. “You take that away, and you take a lot of the respect away from them.”

The car-washing issue came up periodically during Plummer’s tenure, he said, but each time he explained his rationale for allowing it.

If the improvement in the department was not already evident, residents received a dramatic reminder on Aug. 30, 2013, when Westcustogo Hall burned to the ground. The whole fire department turned out to help fight the blaze. The building’s loss was a blow to the community, and the town thanked the department for its firefighting efforts in the dedication of the 2014 annual report.

“At a time when we hear on the news about problems experienced by other volunteer fire/rescue companies in their search for committed volunteers, North Yarmouth Fire/Rescue is seeing an exciting surge of energy,” the dedication read. “We count ourselves lucky to have the best fire-rescue department a town could have!”

COMPLAINT TRIGGERS CONTROVERSY

Plummer, lured by another opportunity in Old Orchard Beach, resigned in September. North Yarmouth hired Yarmouth’s fire chief, Michael Robitaille, to serve as an interim leader.

About a month after Plummer’s departure, on a chilly evening in late October, Selectman Paul Napolitano was passing the North Yarmouth Fire Station on Walnut Hill Road when he noticed someone washing a car outside the station with one of the bay doors open.

Napolitano stopped and said something to the fire department members, and then complained to Rosemary Roy, North Yarmouth’s recently hired town manager, and Steve Palmer, the Board of Selectmen chairman.

The complaint came at a sensitive time for the town, and not only because it had an interim fire chief. The town had adopted a new charter and changed its form of government, shifting administration and employee management duties from the citizen selectmen to Roy, North Yarmouth’s first town manager.

Roy took the complaint to Robitaille, the interim fire chief, and together they decided to halt car-washing until a permanent chief was hired.

The new chief, Gregory Payson, started in November and was thrust into an already contentious situation. Soon, it got even worse.

PARAMEDIC OBJECTS TO NEW POLICY

On Nov. 30, Young, the paramedic, wrote an email to Selectmen Chairman Palmer – not to the fire chief or the town manager – in which he called the new policy an affront to the volunteers. Young attributed the issue to “one person from the selectmen who has a reputation for continually stirring the pot.”

Napolitano hung up on a reporter when he was contacted by the Press Herald for comment.

Young also wondered in his email about what would happen if, as a possible next step, EMTs were no longer allowed to respond to calls in their own vehicles: “Some day, someone will die who otherwise would have lived if that becomes a rule,” he wrote.

He urged the board to reconsider the car-washing policy and then deliver the news “face to face so the (fire department) members can see you are sincere about how important we are to the well being and safety of our town.”

REPRIMAND, DEMAND FOR APOLOGY

Because of the town’s new charter giving jurisdiction over employee issues to the town manager, Palmer forwarded the letter to Roy.

Although the town has officially declined to speak on the issue or explain what happened next, information gleaned from documents posted to the Internet by town residents, and through interviews with Roy, Palmer, Toorish and another selectman, Alex Carr, indicates that Young’s letter drew rapid scrutiny from the town.

Carr, who is also a member of the town’s fire and rescue department, said that when he read Young’s message, he rolled his eyes and shrugged it off. But, he said, “I think it bothered a couple of the selectmen, and it certainly bothered the town manager.”

About a week after Young’s letter to Palmer, the new fire chief gave Young a written reprimand for emailing Palmer, the second time in four months that he went to the town about a department issue. Young failed to follow the chain of command and he blurred the line between his own viewpoint and that of the town, Payson wrote.

Payson was especially critical of Young’s warning that someone could die if personnel no longer were allowed to respond to emergencies in their own cars. “This statement was uncalled for and is clearly an intimidating threat that will not be tolerated,” he wrote.

Young would have to write and hand deliver a letter of apology to Roy, and explain why his actions were wrong and how it undermines Payson’s authority, according to a copy of the reprimand.

MEETING LEADS TO FIRING, RESIGNATION

Young declined to speak about the conflict.

Toorish, the only other paramedic in North Yarmouth, said he wrote to Palmer defending his colleague and friend. He argued that reprimanding Young for contacting his elected representative tramples his First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government.

On Dec. 11, the day Young was supposed to deliver his written apology to Roy, Young and Toorish met with Roy and Payson at Town Hall. When the meeting was over, Toorish quit in protest and Roy fired Young for his disrespectful conduct toward her.

Roy has declined to comment on the meeting and other details, citing the confidentially of personnel matters. However, she said that a website, www.nyourtown.com, containing an account of the meeting similar to Toorish’s is inaccurate.

“There’s a lot of lies going on,” she said.

Roy, who has had to absorb a series of professional and personal attacks in her first six months on the job, got emotional during a telephone interview when asked about the criticisms, and also broke down during a televised Board of Selectmen meeting in February while discussing an unrelated topic.

‘A PALL OVER THIS COMMUNITY’

Young has filed a wrongful termination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. He was reinstated by the town in January, but is currently on administrative leave pending negotiations between attorneys for Young and the town.

Palmer, meanwhile, deflected the barrage of criticism that he, Roy and others have received, both in person at the selectmen meetings and online.

“There’s a great number of mistruths, misstatements of factual events, and this is being allowed because it’s under the First Amendment right,” he said. “I have a hard time of this entire notion of people saying what they want, how they want and when they want to say it. The board has to be in a position to be very protective of itself, and take the high road and make sure it doesn’t get caught in this behavior that has cast a pall over this community.”