The NorEaster

Sam_Pfeifle_Sept13 We may never get the final word on Portland fireboat crash

January 10, 2013

Remember that time the Portland (Maine) fireboat hit something in Casco Bay? No, not that time in 2009, which caused $90,000 in damages. I mean that time in 2011, which caused $52,000 in damages. Anyway, it looks like we may never know what really happened that day in October 2011, when what has been described as a "training mission" (but had a dozen family and friends of the firefighters on board) ended in a pretty big embarrassment for the city's fire department.

We certainly know more today than we did previously, as an arbitrator's report on the matter has finally been released. The arbitrator was called in because the two firefighters who were on board that day, Capt. Christopher Goodall and Pilot Joseph Murphy, were suspended without pay for 80 and 24 hours, respectively, and appealed their punishments.

Personally, if I was on a "training mission" with my family and friends and I smashed the city's fireboat into an underwater obstruction and caused $50,000 in damages I might just take any punishment that was doled out, put my tail between my legs and go home. But maybe there were some mitigating circumstances I don't know about. 

That's the problem. If there were mitigating circumstances, we'll never know, as the full report on the incident is not being released to the public. 

Which has a few city councilors up in arms

What has been released is the arbitrator's summary of events, which goes like this:

Goodall was in command of the boat while Murphy was piloting the vessel when it left the shore around 5:16 p.m. on Oct. 15, 2011.

The boat was equipped with navigational electronics, including radar, depth sounders, navigational tracking plotters and paper charts, the report states.

The fireboat left the “Destroyer Channel” between Fort Gorges and Little Diamond Island around 5:55 p.m. A minute later, the boat entered an area north of Fort Gorges that has a shoal and marked obstructions.

Goodall was responsible for determining staffing on what was described by the city as a “training run.”

Murphy was responsible for safely navigating around marked obstructions, but did not do so, since Goodall did not alert him to the obstacle.

“As engineer, (Goodall) should have alerted the pilot to possible hazards and, as lookout, should have been more aware of his surroundings,” Altman wrote.

Okay, that's great, but we don't know why they left the channel (the arbitrator determined that they should not have done so because it is, well, against department rules for use of the fireboat), why Goodall didn't give Murphy the heads up that they were about to hit something, and why Goodall, if he was bringing a dozen family and friends with him, didn't bring along a deckhand to help out when it's pretty clear he was going to be distracted at times. 

The answers to those questions may very well be in the final report on the incident prepared by the fire department, but it's apparently against the law for that to be released:

Clegg said the city can’t release the report because it is part of the personnel file. The only public document is the arbitrator’s report, she said.

“We were consistent all along we would release a final decision,” Clegg said. “We will release what we can legally release.”

I understand that they need to follow the law, but look at the situation we have here: 

• A $3.2 million boat paid for by taxpayers has been wrecked twice in four years.

• Our local newspaper did an investigation that found three quarters of all trips on the vessels were for non-emergency runs, many of which were described as "harbor cruises."

• The firefighters basically refused to be trained by the Coast Guard, and continue with a policy that requires internal training only. 

• The fire department changed their policy so that guests are no longer allowed on board, which made it clear that they were allowing guests on board on a fairly regular basis.

With all of that embarrassment and violation of the public trust going, I'm thinking that transparency is probably the best option. Maybe the firefighters themselves should come out and say what really happened. I mean, the arbitrator just gave them some of their lost wages back, citing a strong employment history. 

The least they could do is provide some information in return.

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