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Firefighter reprimanded for response to woman who reported cat in tree

A young girl posted on social media on behalf of her mother that the firefighter was “extremely rude” and that he suggested the cat would get out on its own

By Brian Lee
Telegram & Gazette

DUDLEY, Mass. — A “sarcastic” firefighter got a verbal reprimand recently for his response to a caller who asked firefighters to rescue a cat from a tree, according to the fire chief.

A young girl posted on social media on behalf of her mother that the firefighter who took the call was “extremely rude” and that he suggested the cat would eventually get out of the tree on its own: He said he had never seen a cat skeleton in a tree before, and that cats have nine lives.

The fire chief was not pleased with the firefighter’s response.

Asked if that was what the firefighter said, Fire Chief Dean Kochanowski said, “That’s true.”

Chief Kochanowski declined to reveal the firefighter’s identity.

The chief said the verbal reprimand was noted in the employee’s file. “I still write it down,” the chief said.

The call occurred the weekend of Feb. 3, from the area of West Main Street near Webster, he said.

Chief Kochanowski first spoke about the call during the Feb. 5 meeting of the Board of Selectmen. He said he didn’t want to bring it up, but felt he had to, in light of the department getting “blitzed” on social media.

The chief explained to selectmen that firefighters can’t get animals out of trees for safety reasons. The department’s ladder truck can’t go between branches without damaging the ladder. Also, the department doesn’t have a special ground ladder that reaches any higher than anything a homeowner would possess.

“It’s not something we’re equipped to do,” he told selectmen. “Our equipment is specifically for fighting fires in dwellings and things of that nature.”

“I will say,” he continued, “that the person who took the call didn’t handle the call correctly, and I will apologize to the public for that. That person has been spoken to and disciplined and told to act in a professional manner when dealing with the public, and not be sarcastic.”

The cat, which had been in the tree for at least two days, has since gotten down. But its whereabouts are not known. The chief said he believes it was a feral cat.

The chief said he owns two house cats himself, and had sympathy. Earlier in his career, well before coming to Dudley, he said he got in trouble because he almost ruined an $800,000 piece of equipment trying to remove a cat from a tree.

“It’s not as easy as you think it is,” he said.

There are also medical considerations. If a firefighter was bitten, the chief said, it automatically triggers an IV antibiotic at the emergency room. The firefighter could claim an injury while on duty.

“People don’t understand this,” Chief Kochanowski said to the board. “They think we’re being a pain, and don’t want to do our jobs.”

At the very least, though, the department should have gone out to look at the situation, the chief acknowledged.

Elsewhere, firefighters don’t generally respond to these types of calls, due to safety, staffing and equipment issues.

Southbridge Fire Chief Mark W. DiFronzo said the department will go out and take a look to see if there’s anything it can do. But if it’s an involved process it backs off.

“Most times we do decline because we can’t get to it, and we don’t have extra staff to send on that type of request,” the Southbridge chief said. “If they take the ladder truck to free a cat, then get a call for a heart attack, how do we explain that to the victim?”

Spencer Fire Chief Robert P. Parsons said his department does not generally go out to rescue cats from trees, unless specifically requested by an animal control officer.

A fire official from another local community said its department never goes out to free cats from trees. He asked that his department not be identified, because of the public relations ramifications of having such a policy.

“We don’t see skeletal remains of cats in trees,” he said, echoing the penalized Dudley firefighter. “They figure it out and come down. It’s not worth putting a firefighter at risk.”

“What happens is, you send a ladder truck, and the cat ends up jumping out of the tree, or at the firefighter, and scratching the heck out of them.”

In January, firefighters in Three Rivers, part of Palmer, tried to rescue a cat from a tree. After several hours of coaxing, the cat took things into its own hands and jumped to the ground. It ran off, eventually returning to its home.

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