Heads of four emergency services organizations in Waldo County are calling on the town of Thorndike to get control of its fire department.

In a letter to the town dated Jan. 23, Waldo County Fire Chiefs Association, Waldo County Firefighters association, Waldo County EMA and the county's Regional Communications Center described a lack of professionalism from the department.

The authors traced many of the problems to former Fire Chief George Russell, who has remained with the department despite "legal issues" and now serves as assistant chief. Speaking this week, Russell called the authors of the letter "bozos" who want to exert their power over the fire department where he has served for nine years.

Russell came under scrutiny in 2015, when he was charged with using a fire department credit card for roughly $5,000 in personal expenses. He pleaded guilty and ultimately the charge was dismissed. In the meantime, selectmen refused to reappoint him as chief, but Russell stayed on with the department as assistant chief under then-Chief Seth Curra, whom the letter described as a "figurehead."

Since then, the letter alleges, the department has shown worrying signs. In the past year, the authors say they witnessed an incident in Thorndike, in which fire trucks were out of service and mutual aid partners weren't notified until a fire broke out near the station.

"Based on your contract agreement with the town of Knox and the funds received for providing fire protection," the letter states, "this is an unacceptable practice."

Last year, Knox paid Thorndike roughly $8,500 for fire protection.

In another incident, the letter says, firefighters entered a burning house with a faulty hose assembly, and Thorndike's pump operator was not qualified to use a new truck that had a working pump, unnecessarily endangering the lives of firefighters.

Additionally, the letter raised concerns about Thorndike Fire Department's radio use getting "out of control" during incidents, a debt of $1,000 for basic fire training that was fronted by the fire chief's association but not repaid, and the recent promotion of an inexperienced firefighter to captain.

Liberty Fire Chief Bill Gillespie, who is president of Waldo County Fire Chiefs Association, said two towns have stopped calling Thorndike when there's a fire and have sought manpower elsewhere. He declined to say which two towns and noted that Thorndike still receives fire protection from all of its mutual aid partners.

Beyond the problems with Thorndike's response, Gillespie said many of his peers just don't trust Russell.

"If he's going to steal money from his own association, then I would have serious concerns about letting him into my house unattended," Gillespie said. "Firefighters are supposed to be people that you trust."

Gillespie said the letter, which also is published as an advertisment in this newspaper at the authors' request, was intended to let the town know what is happening at its fire department.

"The entire department needs to be revamped," he said. "There's a lack of experience there and it's shown in calls we've responded to up there."

First Selectman Larry Ward acknowledged Russell's past but said he wasn't aware of the extent of the ongoing problems alleged in the letter.

"We thought we put them behind us," he said. "Evidently not so much."

Ward said the question is likely to come up at the town's next selectmen's meeting Wednesday, Feb. 20, and could be a topic at the annual town meeting in March.

"I just wish that it could be resolved and we could move forward," he said. "There's no reason we can't have a decent fire department. George needs to resign. It's that simple. We'll probably want to have a new chief as well."

Neither the selectmen nor town residents have direct control over the Thorndike Volunteer Fire Company, which is organized as a private association with Russell as president and CEO. But Ward said the town ultimately holds the purse strings.

Speaking Feb. 18, Russell said he has spoken with an attorney about bringing a defamation of character lawsuit against the town and several other parties. Russell said he "made a mistake five years ago" while trying to retain custody of his son and is currently trying to keep a shorthanded fire department running.

He described his department as a "brotherhood" and said his fellow firefighters support him and will walk out if necessary.

"This is just the start of the hurricane," Russell said.

Fire Chief Bill Isbister told the Bangor Daily News firefighters are prepared quit if the town doesn't reinstate Russell and release $85,000 in the department's truck and equipment replacement fund so they can buy better equipment.

Isbister, a former lieutenant, was made chief of the department at the end of January, according to Town Clerk Doreen Berry, who said she believes Russell is still assistant chief. She deferred additional personnel questions to Selectman Ward, who said he doesn't know who the department's officers are. The Republican Journal made multiple attempts to contact the fire department directly but was unsuccessful.