Portland Press Herald, Maine
PORTLAND, Maine — Three deputy fire chiefs in Portland have been reprimanded for failing to enforce a month-old policy requiring firefighters to wear masks at all times in the fire stations when social distancing is not possible.
Meanwhile, Fire Chief Keith Gautreau responded to questions Thursday about a photograph showing him without a mask inside a fire station. Gautreau said he took off his mask briefly to pose for a photo with firefighters during a retirement party.
Eleven firefighters working out of the Bramhall Station called out sick Sunday after being exposed to a co-worker who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Their shifts were filled by other firefighters working on overtime.
Gautreau said none of the firefighters had been wearing masks, which made the exposure worse. He issued written reprimands Wednesday to Chad Johnston, Shawn Neat and Kevin McGuire, who Gautreau said admitted to not enforcing the policy that went into effect Nov. 2. He said those reprimands were discussed with his deputies at a meeting Thursday morning.
"We could all do better with this and we should," Gautreau said. "It needs to start at the top. It needs to start at leadership. So this afternoon I issued discipline to three deputy chiefs. I've got to start there and it's got to work its way down. If I'm not holding my command staff accountable for enforcing this, then we might as well not even do this."
Gautreau disclosed the move after being contacted by a reporter Thursday morning about photos posted Nov. 22 on the Portland Fire Department's Facebook page showing him and other members of the department not wearing masks while posing for a photo at a retirement party.
The photos, which Gautreau said were reviewed during his meeting with the deputy chiefs, were brought to the newspaper's attention by Ronald Dearth, a retired Portland firefighter who raised questions about whether the chief and his deputies were doing enough to enforce the policy.
Dearth said the department's leaders were well aware the mask policy was being ignored. "And the (deputy chiefs) report directly to Chief Gautreau, who has the ultimate responsibility to make sure all department policies are followed and to provide as safe a work environment as possible. He did not," Dearth said.
The photos were taken during a Nov. 21 party for Deputy Chief Michael Nixon, who accepted a job as chief of a fire department in South Carolina. One photo shows Gautreau and Nixon posing together without masks. Another shows Gautreau posing with seven other people without masks standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Gautreau can be seen wearing a mask in the background of another photo. He said he took off his mask when he was addressing the crowd of about 43 people at a distance and for the brief photo opportunities. He acknowledged that not everyone else at the party was wearing a mask.
"There were eight of us who worked with him for 25 years and that's a really special thing," he said. "If you look closely, almost all of us are holding masks in our hands. We took them off for 15 seconds for a photo op."
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines a close contact as being within 6 feet of someone without a mask for 15 minutes.
In addition to the fire chief's order that masks be worn in all fire stations when social distancing is not possible, the most recent statewide order from Gov. Janet Mills says face coverings in Maine are now required in all public places — essentially anywhere people might interact with others — regardless of whether distancing is possible.
The city and the fire union seemed eager to put the issue behind them, after a public back-and-forth this week.
In an interview with News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) last weekend, Chris Thomson, president of the local firefighters union, criticized the city's failure to offer testing to the 11 firefighters who were not wearing masks when they worked a 24-hour shift with a co-worker who later tested positive, and for suggesting they return to work for their next shift.
Firefighters and first responders are allowed to work after being exposed, as long as they wear a mask and eye protection, according to state guidelines.
Instead, all 11 firefighters called out sick Sunday and got tested on their own, the costs for which were expected to be covered by their insurance plans. And 10 of the 11 firefighters missed work Tuesday as well, according to the city.
The next day, Gautreau revealed that none of the firefighters were wearing masks, which made the exposure worse. He provided a copy of the city's mask policy, which was announced on Oct. 30 and took effect on Nov. 2, that explained the rationale behind the move — a 61 percent increase in coronavirus cases in Cumberland County the preceding week and an increase in service calls. The order predicted potential controversy around the new policy.
"We understand that in a department of 224 people there will be differences of opinion to this change," Gautreau's order stated. "This is a move we have tried to avoid, but now feel compelled to make. Perhaps some of you have been wondering why we have not adopted this policy before now, others likely hoped this would never be required."
Gautreau stressed voluntary compliance over enforcement. "Please take this seriously and adhere to it, no one wants to have to become the 'mask police'," he wrote.
Thomson declined to say whether he thought Gautreau was sending mixed messages to the rank-and-file. He noted that all 11 of the exposed firefighters tested negative for the virus, offering that as proof the department's approach is working.
"I don't think this is going to be an issue going forward … I expect that we will tighten compliance with the policy and guidelines," Thomson said in an email.
Gautreau praised the department's anti-coronavirus precautions on rescue calls, noting that only two members out of 224 have tested positive for COVID-19, which they contracted outside of work. He said the department has responded to 1,383 medical calls for patients with COVID-19, resulting in over 7,000 patient contacts and 108 transports of COVID-19 patients to local hospitals.
"We're doing a great job out there on the calls," he said. "We're doing a really good job of cleaning and disinfecting. But sometimes, when we get back at the station, we can get back into that comfort zone, because it's our second home. And I'll take the blame on that."
Gautreau said the COVID-positive employee has been admitted to a local hospital.
"We're really praying for him," he said. "Our thoughts are with him."
(c)2020 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)