HALFMOON & WATERFORD — The recent resignation of the Halfmoon-Waterford Fire Department chief, and the suspension of the company’s assistant chief, has left the organization working through its next possible steps as it prepares to elect their next chief in December.
Rick Gaudette, former chief of the Halfmoon-Waterford Fire Department, resigned last week, condemning what he called a lack of support from the department following his decision to suspend two members in the aftermath of a training accident that left two firefighters mildly burned. Neither of the suspended men was accused of causing the accident, but the chief claimed their actions afterward were insubordinate.
The department shakeup was first reported by CBS6.
Gaudette, who has been the chief since last year, had been a volunteer in the company for 12 years and in the firefighting field for close to 30.
Assistant Chief Tony Bonventre and another firefighter, Earl McMahon, were suspended for 59 days and 30 days, respectively, by Gaudette after the incident. However, after a petition expressing a vote of no confidence in Gaudette was circulated by members, he announced on Nov. 10, shortly after he suspended Bonventre and McMahon, that he would be stepping down.
The incident and fallout has created a complicated hurdle for the department to overcome as it moves to elect a new chief. Gaudette and Bonventre were both planning on running for the position.
The fire district covers both the towns of Halfmoon and Waterford, and is an all-volunteer department, with at least 1,000 calls received each year between the two towns.
The training incident happened in late October.
According to both accounts of Gaudette and Bonventre, during a car fire simulation training, which neither attended due to prior commitments, the simulation device malfunctioned, resulting in minor burns on two firefighters through their gear.
That is where the two accounts diverge.
According to Bonventre, who has been a firefighter for 25 years and at the department for five, the two firefighters went to receive medical treatment. Upon learning of the incident, Bonventre said, he called Gaudette to inform him that the firefighters’ gear needed to be taken out of commission until he could have it tested and cleared to be put back into circulation.
“I said, we need to take their gear out of service. He said yes,” Bonventre said.
Shortly after, Bonventre said that he had the gear examined by a certified official who deemed it ready for use.
“I said it needs to be laundered and then it will be up to the chief to decide if it’s placed back in service,” he said.
The gear, he said, still has not been put back into service. The company is investigating why the simulation device malfunctioned, he added.
Gaudette, though, claims that Bonventre acted without the proper authority and failed to inform him about the incident in a timely manner. He also said the October incident was just one of a series of actions that he considered to be insubordinate.
“I asked for certain things.” Gaudette said in a phone interview. “These certain things weren’t getting done. I was getting frustrated. I had firemen get burnt.”
That is what led to the suspension, he said, which he knew would not be well-received within the department. But, he said, he previously warned the department members that he would be holding them to to what he called “higher standards” during his time at chief. McMahon was suspended after speaking out over Benventre’s suspension.
The timing of Bonventre’s suspension, which occurred right before Bonventre and Gaudette were to announce their official intent to run for the position of chief, also raised some questions as to whether the move was political in nature, which Gaudette denied.
Gaudette said he took action because he felt he had no other option. “Suspensions aren’t the answer. You don’t learn anything from a suspension,” Gaudette said. “I chose to take action knowing that I wasn’t going to be the most popular person.”
Bonventre’s suspension has since been commuted to 30 days, and could be dismissed entirely, Bonventre said, depending on the company’s investigation into the incident. He lauded the company for working quickly to determine what went wrong with the simulator, and said that it is evident that the department has always followed procedure, despite Guadette’s claims.
“They’re just following procedure. We completely followed procedure.”
He added that he was looking forward to resuming his work at the department.
“The fact that over such silliness, I’m unable to do this … that bothers me more than any of this other stuff,” he said.
John D’Alessandro, one of five commissioners who manages the fire district, said since the incident and suspension happened at the company level, it isn’t within the jurisdiction of the commissioners to intervene.
But, he added, responding quickly to calls remains the focus of everybody within the district.
“Our number one priority is to ensure that the fire and emergency response is being the proper manner,” he said. “Anything else is a side show.”
The district will nominate and vote for a new chief in December for a full one-year term. For now, Deputy Chief Jim Mulligan will act as interim fire chief.