Updated

Fire captain's termination upheld

By Jordan Bailey | Aug 09, 2017
Photo by: Jordan Bailey A.J. Koch waits in the Town Office lobby while the board of appeals deliberates Tuesday, Aug. 8.

Searsport — The Board of Appeals upheld the town manager’s decision to terminate Fire Department Capt. A.J. Koch after a six-hour appeal over the course of two meetings held Aug. 3 and Aug. 8.

Though the Fire Department is staffed by volunteers, firefighters are paid on a per-call basis and can be terminated.

According to a final disciplinary letter obtained through a freedom of access request, Koch was terminated for failure to obey orders and for issues with his response to a fire call Feb. 25. Town Manager James Gillway wrote the letter after investigating the incident and consulting with Fire Chief Andrew Webster, who also signed the letter.

Koch previously was ordered by a superior officer to report to the station to retrieve gear before responding to any fires, the letter states, but he did not do so on the Feb. 25 call, violating Searsport policy “to obey a personnel rule or any lawful or reasonable directive given to (the employee) by a supervisor.”

Further, it continues, as incident commander, he failed to ensure that firefighters for whom he was responsible wore personal protective gear, and “actually discouraged one member from using it,” on that call.

“It was poor judgment and against the general practice and policy of the Department to discourage a firefighter from wearing personal protective gear when fighting a fire with hazardous materials present,” the letter reads.

Koch disputed the claims in the letter in a phone call with The Republican Journal Wednesday, Aug. 9. He said he received a letter from the town manager in January outlining how he was to respond to calls: If the scene was between where he was located and the South Fire Station, he was to report directly to the scene, and if the scene was between his location and North Fire Station he was to respond to South Station first.

In February, the fire chief told him to report to South Station first in all cases, but he said he continued to follow the town manager's instruction because he was not told at the time that the chief's verbal order superseded the town manager's written instructions.

Regarding protective gear, he said when he assessed the scene Feb. 25, he determined it would be a defensive, exterior attack: There was no smoke and no wind, and the flames were going straight up. He said one firefighter took an airpack off the truck and approached the fire.

"I didn’t tell the person to put it back on the truck," Koch said. "The comment was made that, from what I saw when I was in there, it wasn’t going to be a mandatory piece of equipment."

Regarding the hazardous materials, he said there was report of a kerosene tank in the building and one visible outside, but Koch said petroleum products are not considered hazardous materials.

A request for information from the fire chief about hazardous materials at that scene drew no immediate response.

Prior disciplinary issues also were referenced in the letter, including a reprimand issued Dec. 17, 2016, for violation of the policy that employees must obey orders. Koch was ordered to submit a formal apology to the fire chief for inappropriate comments and to apologize to the department for disruptions he caused in summer 2016 before returning to the department. According to the letter, he responded to an emergency call before making those apologies.

Koch said the letter from the town manager ordering him to submit a formal apology did not state that that must be done before responding to a call.

The Board of Appeals met Aug. 3 and heard from a number of witnesses until after 9 p.m. It picked up where it left off in executive session Tuesday night, beginning at 6:01 p.m. At about 8:30 p.m., Koch was dismissed from the meeting.

“I am hoping it will be remanded to something less than termination,” he said while waiting in the Town Office lobby for the board's decision.

But as raised voices emanated from the meeting room, that began to look unlikely.

As board discussions continued behind closed doors, Koch spoke about his 20 years serving on Searsport Fire Department and his love of firefighting. He said his father has been with the department for 34 years and served as chief of a second department based at the North Fire Station in the '90s.

“If I didn’t want to do this, I certainly wouldn’t be here fighting it,” he said.

He said is pursuing a full-time position with Camden Fire Department.

After being called back to the meeting to hear the board's decision to uphold the termination, and the meeting was adjourned, Koch left the building quietly but visibly distraught.

Editor's note: this story has been update to include comments made by Koch Wednesday evening.

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Jordan M Bailey
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Jordan Bailey has been working for The Republican Journal since 2013. She studied philosophy at Boston College and has experience in marine science education and journalism. She lives in Belfast.

 

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