Lee firefighters opposed to sharing fire chief

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LEE — A group of Lee firefighters have thrown water on the idea of sharing a fire chief with Lenox.

The longtime firemen told the Lee Board of Selectmen on Tuesday their rank and file is on record against a single chief for both municipalities.

"In my time with the department we've had three chiefs, all coming from within, and we want to continue along those lines," said Capt. James Hunt, a 29-year veteran of the 45-member fire company.

Members told the group that the idea of sharing a chief was in the early discussion stages.

"We're still trying to wrap our heads around this," said Selectman David Consolati. "We don't know if this would work."

Lee Fire Chief Alan Sparks has told town officials he's retiring at year's end after 48 years as a Lee firefighter, the last five as chief. His pending retirement prompted Lee and Lenox town officials to start exploring how the two fire departments could share functions, most notably inspections of homes in businesses in both communities.

Lee's fire chief currently handles inspections, but is considered part-time and paid an annual stipend of $18,847, plus $4,400 in inspection fees. Lenox Fire Chief Dan Clifford is a salaried full-timer whose primary function — when not coordinating a fire scene — is conducting fire inspections throughout the town.

Lee officials are most interested in the Lenox model for a fire chief, adopted in recent years by other Berkshire municipalities.

"What we're looking to do, we need to go to a paid fire chief," Consolati said. "There is a lot of paperwork involved [with each inspection] — it takes about three hours for each business."

Aside from the chief, six other officers make up the Lee Fire Department's chain of command, all eager to divvy up the fire inspections.

"We're willing to be involved in the process and take some of the load off the chief," Hunt said.

He acknowledged Lee may need a full-time paid fire chief "at some time."

The joint fire chief idea follows the formation last fall of a tri-town shared-services agreement between Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge. Under the legal pact, all three towns are currently exploring a tri-town manager, given the town administrators of Lee and Stockbridge will have retired by July 1, 2017.

Lee and Lenox have since hired a shared building commissioner and building inspector, which resulted from Lee jobs becoming vacant in November.

Sparks' retirement prompted a meeting earlier this month between Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason, Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen, Sparks and Clifford, to review duties of each town's fire chief.

Ketchen said in an Eagle interview it was only an informal conversation since the agreement calls for discussion when there's a retirement that could form the basis for a shared services framework of some type.

Nevertheless, several Lee firefighters at Tuesday's Selectmen's meeting felt the rank-and-file was represented at the initial discussion.

"It's a slap in the face to us," said Firefighter Peter Sorrentino. "None of our officers were asked to your meeting."

Firefighter Bill Wellspeak indicated there are several firefighters willing to be part of the shared-chief discussion, with the Board of Selectmen indicating they would welcome one of their representatives at the table.

Selectman Thomas Wickham said exploring a shared chief isn't a slight against the firefighters and their service to the town.

"Everyone has respect for our fire department and the commitment involved," he said.

Nason shared Wickham's sentiment.

"I'm personally grateful for the response to a fire in my garage," he said. "It saved my house."

Staff writer Clarence Fanto contributed to the story.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233


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