Many area fire departments allow law enforcement personnel to access their facilities, enabling them to use the bathrooms and internet when they might be far from their headquarters in the middle of a shift.

Signs, seen here on Sunday at each entrance of the Manchester Fire Station. Maine State Police and Kennebec County deputies that patrol the town have utilized the Manchester Fire Station for making phone calls, pit stops and processing paper work. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Until recently that has been the case in Manchester, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed that.

Manchester Town Manager Patrick Gilbert said he told Fire Chief Frank Wozniak to close the building, even to law enforcement. A sign on the door says, “Fire personnel only” and “No law enforcement.”

“A lot of law enforcement guys hang out at fire stations,” said Gilbert. “We’re trying to keep everybody out of the station. The same would go for the town office.”

He said Kennebec County sheriff’s deputies and Maine State Police troopers all have keys to the station, but the town is trying to protect their firefighters.

Robert Gasper, chairman of Manchester’s Board of Selectman, said in an interview Thursday he believes the issue has come up because of “whiny sheriff’s deputies that brought this up.”

“Sorry we didn’t tell the sheriff so he could tell his deputies, but it was up there for two weeks and heard nothing of it,” Gasper said.

Gilbert said town officials wanted to safeguard the building from someone inadvertently bringing the virus in. “Our station isn’t manned all the time, and often officers come by in the middle of the night,” he said. “We’re just trying to do our due diligence. Everybody puts different things on their signs; we just wanted to make sure they don’t come in the building.”

Manchester Fire Chief Frank Wozniak said signs were originally posted indicated only fire personnel were allowed in the building. The sign indicating “No Law Enforcement” was a later addition, he said.

Manchester Fire Chief Frank Wozniak, center, at an accident Aug. 6, 2019, on U.S. Route 201 in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal file photo by Andy Molloy

“Everybody pretty much understands it. Until the order changes from (Gov. Janet) Mills, that’s the way it is going to be,” Wozniak said, noting that he had spoken to some individual officers about the change. “From what I understand, a lot of other departments are doing the same thing. They’re (law enforcement personnel) out in the public a whole lot more, so their risk is a whole lot more.”

Asked about specific departments that had done the same, Wozniak said: “I just know there are departments across the state have closed their doors to law enforcement.”

Gasper, the select board chairman who is also a captain in the Manchester Fire Department, said the closure of the station to law enforcement has nothing to do with them being police.

“We’ve shut it off to everybody, we’ve encouraged our own guys to not come in (and) hang around,” he said. “We’re trying to keep our social distance and not carry any disease into the building.”

Gasper gave a scenario where a police officer potentially stops someone with the coronavirus, takes their papers and hands them back. They may not know they have the virus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.

“Then they come to our station to go to the bathroom, they have to touch five doorknobs and two sink handles and spread the coronavirus around,” he said. “Why should one of our firefighters get it because of them. They (law enforcement) are public facing and they shouldn’t be in our building.”

The reason he thinks the topic of the station closure to law enforcement has come up, Gasper said, is because a Kennebec County sheriff’s deputy came across the sign when their department started its two-week patrol of the county. The sheriff’s department and Maine State Police rotate law enforcement coverage on two-week intervals.

“I think when we put the note on the door it was just after the sheriff’s stopped their last patrol and just after the troopers started. It was the whiny sheriff’s deputies that brought this up,” Gasper said. ” … The troopers didn’t go to the bathroom here for two weeks, but they didn’t make any issue of it. It was probably a shock to them (the sheriff’s deputies) when they came in, saw the sign on the door and it said don’t come in. Honestly, it’s an honor policy, they know how to get in. If we’d been thinking, we would have called the sheriff and the commanding officer with the state police, but we didn’t.

“Nobody else does what we do for the police; it’s open 24 hours a day,” he added. “They used to come in and wash their patrol cars, melt them off in the winter. Nobody does what we do for them on the west side of Kennebec County. It’s a pretty special arrangement for them.”

Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason said his staff “does use fire stations throughout the county for various reasons.”

“I have not been told that some stations have closed their doors to deputies,” he said. “However, if they have, we all understand the possible reason, COVID-19, and we can respect that.”

Lt. Jason Madore, commanding officer for Maine State Police Troop C, said his troopers sometimes use fire department or local Department of Transportation facilities as a place to stop.

“I can’t say we have access to every station within the Troop, but I think we do for most of them,” he said. “With fire departments, we have to have the chief’s permission and codes to get in.

“It just boils down to having conversations with the chief or department figurehead,” Madore added. “It’s a place where we can use the bathrooms, stop and do reports, do internal maintenance to our cruisers.”

He was unaware of Manchester’s change in policy, though he said he believed troopers were allowed access in the past.

“Some departments may be restricting access to their facilities, to limit the number of people in there, but I have not heard specifically about any problems,” Madore said. “We’re limiting the number of personnel in our own barracks to keep them clean and limit potential exposure.

“The only thing I can imagine is he’s looking at it from a COVID-19 perspective,” he added. “We’ve always had a great working relationship with the fire service. We have different colored lights, but we’re all on the same team when dealing with public safety situations.”

While not all area fire chiefs were reached, the ones who were indicated they were still allowing law enforcement personnel to use their facilities.

“The fire station is closed to the public, but it’s open to firefighters in this area,” said Readfield Fire Chief Lee Mank. “It is open and available for law enforcement to use the facilities. Out here law enforcement needs some place where they can go to be able to use the facilities or do their paperwork on tables. We’re going to continue to let that happen.

“I think they’re just like the rest of us,” he added. “Any time they have unknowns, they’re really aware of disinfecting and washing their hands.”

Pittston Fire Chief Joshua Johnson, who is also a full-time firefighter/medic in Gardiner, said his two stations remain open to law enforcement. He said as long as his stations don’t run into any issues, he doesn’t intend to limit their access.

“I know in Gardiner we also work closely with the police. They’re able to clean their cruisers at the facility,” he said. “I know that talking from different members of the state police and Gardiner police, any time they come into contact with somebody, they are to decon(taminate) all their equipment, more so if there is a suspicion of a COVID-related illness there.”

“I think, like most, there is some concern this appears to be a pretty transmittable disease,” Johnson added. “I’m a little less concerned with police and those sort of agencies, because they have been trained on proper cleaning. I don’t want to limit the places other public safety officials can go to. I’m sure it’s difficult for them not having a place to go.”

In Fayette, Fire Chief Marty Maxwell said law enforcement personnel has used their station before, though most officers stay outside in their vehicles. He said while the building is closed to the public, he hasn’t specifically told any law enforcement agencies they can’t use the station.

“The town manager said all town buildings are closed to any public use by anybody,” Maxwell said. “The only time they’ve been using it is when they’re in this end of the county, to use the bathroom. A lot of times, if law enforcement stops, they do their work outside in the parking lot.”

Vienna’s station is off limits to anybody that isn’t fire personnel, though Fire Chief Brian Church said he hasn’t limited law enforcement access.

“They have the combination to my building, they know how to get in,” he said. “They frequently use our restroom facilities. I wouldn’t stop them, because I know they’re under pretty strict protocols.

“It’s pretty much an unwritten rule they have access to our stations,” Church added.

Jefferson Fire Chief Walter Morris said his department is still allowing law enforcement to use the space.

“The remoteness of their office, way down in Wiscasset, if they need to use the bathroom or something like that, they need a place,” he said, adding they haven’t thought about closing it to law enforcement. “They’re basically taking the same precautions were are, constantly disinfecting their police cruisers and taking all the same recommendations.”

Somerville also is allowing access because, as Fire Chief Mike Dostie said, “you can’t ask for better people to follow protocols.”

“They don’t have anywhere to go at night,” he said. “They’ve got to have a place to go.”

Somerville’s facility has a sanitizing station set up right when people walk through the door, Dostie said.

“Whether you’re coming or or going out, people are sanitizing,” he said.

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