Hostile work environment complaints show split between Conn. town's volunteer, paid FFs
A Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company firefighter described belittlement and other mistreatments; a town employee alleged sexual harassment
By Elizabeth Regan
SALEM, Conn. — Allegations of a hostile work environment at the Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company are calling attention to systemic deficiencies in a framework that mixes town-employed firefighters and independent volunteers.
By order of First Selectman Ed Chmielewski, the town's two, full-time paid firefighters will remain stationed at the Salem Volunteer Fire Company until further notice. They've been there since December when they filed complaints with the town about how they were being treated by Gardner Lake volunteers.
That recommendation and others were the results of a third-party investigation by the Rose Kallor law firm into the complaints from the two paid firefighters as well as a related one from an unnamed town employee alleging sexual harassment. A copy of the firm's July investigation report was obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
Allegations by career firefighter Travis Roberts described messy, informal meetings of a daily "Coffee Club," after which the core group of Gardner Lake volunteers left paid staff to clean both the station and its heavily compromised bathroom. Conversation over coffee included sexual suggestions by former Gardner Lake Chief Jim Savalle about at least one town hall staffer that left the unnamed employee feeling humiliated and uneasy upon hearing about it, according to an additional complaint.
Roberts and paid firefighter Ryan Teixeira also recounted various instances of being belittled or hovered over by Gardner Lake volunteer Ronnie Prezch Jr., a longtime volunteer in town who also serves as a career firefighter in Meriden.
Przech, reached by phone Friday, could not immediately comment on the complaints against him because he had not seen them.
Savalle declined over the phone to comment at the advice of the fire company's attorney, Jacques J. Parenteau.
The complaints and investigation are unfolding against the backdrop of a lawsuit against the town filed by the Gardner Lake fire company more than two years ago. Members are seeking to recoup funds related to wage issues that stemmed from a dispute over former first selectman Kevin Lyden's decision to bar paid firefighters from also serving as volunteers, which Lyden based on the town attorney's interpretation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Since labor issues related to paid vs. volunteer fire services are a problem far beyond Salem's borders, any verdict in the lawsuit could have vast implications for other towns seeking to adhere to federal labor laws and volunteer departments like Gardner Lake that claim they are independent agencies and not subject to the law.
Chmielewski's memo, dated Aug. 22 and read at the October meeting of the Board of Selectmen, recommended the Gardner Lake volunteers take sexual harassment training and start enforcing their own policies. It also said the fire company should be responsible for maintenance and repair of its building and the town-funded equipment assigned to the station.
Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company owns its firehouse and the only ambulance in town. While the volunteers rely on some town funding, the organization says it provides emergency services as an independent corporation and not a public agency or town department.
Salem Volunteer Fire Company is also incorporated as a nonprofit organization, but a key difference is that the town owns the Salem firehouse. The town also owns the vehicles at both houses, except for the ambulance.
Roberts in his complaint said he heard Gardner Lake volunteers claiming that the town is trying to shut down their fire station in order to form one, career-only station, and has also heard Gardner Lake members "openly plotting" to get Salem Volunteer Fire Company closed through the investigation and revocation of their first responder license.
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Attorney Robin B. Kallor, the investigator in the case, was able to get in contact with only two members of Gardner Lake before its attorney, Jacques Parenteau, closed the door on further conversations pending an internal investigation by the independent fire company itself. Neither of the two members who spoke with Kallor were among those criticized in the complaints.
Parenteau in response to Kallor's March request for interviews told the investigator over email that Gardner Lake would conduct its own investigation and let the town know about the results. But he cautioned the fire company "would not be rushed in its efforts to get to the truth behind the allegations made by employees of the Town of Salem as set forth in complaints the town possessed since mid-December."
The town in a Dec. 16 letter from the town's human resource and finance administrator informed the Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company Board of Directors that it would be investigating the allegations of workplace harassment.
Both sides contend they have been trying to communicate openly and both contend the other side has not.
Parenteau in a phone interview this week confirmed he continues to represent the Gardner Lake company in its lawsuit but said he "is not directly involved" in the complaints and investigation.
He said it's his understanding that the findings are "completely one-sided and reflect an ongoing dispute" between the fire company and the town.
Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company President Cheryl Philopena on Wednesday had not yet received documents, including the investigation report, she had requested through a Freedom of Information request on Sept. 14.
Philopena is among several members listed as regular participants in the Coffee Club.
She declined to comment on the allegations until she had more information but emphasized "there are definitely two sides to every story."
"I won't [comment] until I see the other report, until we release our own investigation. We don't even know completely what's been said about us," she said.
Based on what she'd heard about the investigation, she cited "a lot of untruth in there, a lot of embellishment in there and a lot of third party hearsay in there."
Philopena said the fire company has no obligation to comply with the town's investigation. She confirmed they are working to hire an attorney to conduct their own internal investigation.
"We're a private organization," she said. "I mean, you don't walk into Walmart and ask to interview their employees."
Kallor in the report invoked the independent nature of the fire company when she said the town is not "legally or contractually or otherwise obligated" to provide maintenance services at the privately-owned fire house.
"Indeed, the Town, through its paid employees, provides these services to the volunteer firehouses as a courtesy," she said.
While she did not find the Coffee Club members did not purposely make a mess, she said they purposely left them for paid staff to deal with.
Kallor's report was critical of the Gardner Lake volunteers' lack of participation in the investigation. She said trust among fire and emergency medical services is essential to a safe and effective emergency response.
"The allegations raised by these firefighters caused serious concerns that led these two employees to articulate that they felt unsafe at work. Gardner Lake's refusal to participate in the investigation was unreasonable and problematic under these circumstances," she wrote.
Kallor also invoked the lack of cooperation in her recommendation not to place paid firefighters at the Gardner Lake firehouse without assurances they will properly address allegations of improper conduct by its members going forward.
Philopena said she views the investigation as retaliation for the lawsuit.
"Over the last couple of years, since the lawsuit was instituted against the town, Ed Chmielewski and Kevin Lyden have asked multiple members to see if they could get us to drop the lawsuit," she said. "Always, the answer was no."
She said the two sides are currently in mediation, with the next meeting scheduled for December.
Philopena voiced public safety concerns related to leaving Gardner Lake department's coverage area unattended during the day by reassigning Roberts to the Salem firehouse from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and authorizing him to pick up the ambulance at 8 a.m. for return at 4 p.m.
"A fire doubles every 30 seconds," she said. "Cardiac arrest. Overdose. All of those things on that side of town, there's no first response out of the station during the day unless one of us happen to be around."
While the Salem firehouse didn't have an ambulance stationed there prior to the reassignment, she said it worked out with a full-time firefighter at both places. Even without an ambulance, a firefighter could respond in a fully-equipped truck to stabilize a patient until the ambulance got there.
Chmielewski this week said he has worked with the town's insurance carrier to bring in the independent investigator to ensure the situation is handled "with no perception at all of any thumb being on the scale either way."
Asked how he would respond to those concerned about the effectiveness of fire response amid this kind of dysfunction, he said both volunteers and paid firefighters are doing a great job at keeping the public safe.
"And you know in Salem we have mutual aid," Chmielewski said. "So very, very blessed to have the support of our local towns."
Any organizational changes going forward will be evaluated by fire department membership, paid staff members, town officials and the public, according to Chmielewski.
"We are leaning forward on fire emergency services," he said. "There was a study that was conducted several years ago that made some recommendations. Some of those recommendations we've followed through with. We're going to look to get some guidance looking forward as to what's best for Salem."
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