Chief’s departure underscores local union turf battles

It was fairly well known in local firefighting circles that the Chelsea Firefighters Union did not see eye to eye with Chief Chuck Fothergill.

Fothergill threw in the towel two weeks ago when he announced his retirement – a sudden move – but not entirely unexpected.

Chief Fothergill wasn’t one for petty dramas, name-calling or union inspired disobedience campaigns.

Like his father before him, he was a firefighter’s firefighter, a no nonsense guy who lived and breathed the brotherhood that firefighters share.

Some Chelsea firefighters, in fact most Chelsea firefighters according to union members, were pleased to see him go, although he remains the chief until October 31.

The president of the local firefighters union, Lt. Brian Capistran, has called Fothergill a traitor. He claims the entire department is lined up behind him in that belief.

Fothergill has said that unions take positions he sometimes doesn’t agree with and that these are trying times.

He said he has done everything he could to avert layoffs and interruption of services. In fact, Fothergill was instrumental in bringing state and federal aid to the local fire department to save jobs and to fund overtime recently.

One of the chief issues Fothergill was rebuked for by the union was that he tried to change the requirements for the head of fire truck maintenance operation.

The union refused to go along with Fothergill’s professional belief that the person working on the trucks and their brakes and systems should be certified.

This apparently became a union-chief battle, with the chief requiring his men to wear a certain shirt and the union refusing to wear the shirt unless the requirement was dropped. If the shirt requirement was dropped, the union said it would go along with the certification.

“We wouldn’t agree to change the uniform policy in order to provide more safety for the firefighters when they respond to calls,” Ash said.

Capistran said earlier this week that he has informed his union members to wear the shirts as required.

He said he hoped the union and the city could work out their differences.

The Chelsea Fire Department has a special place in the city, especially because this is a city that has nearly burned to the ground in one century.

But this is a new century.

Everything has changed.

There are fewer fires than ever before.

Firefighting and safety standards are way in advance of what they used to be.

The vast majority of responses are for medical aid.

Chief Fothergill leaving or being pushed out, however one chooses to view it, is about union tactics and personality conflicts.

Fothergill leaving the way he did, the union acting the way it did, signals the beginning of a new era, observers believe.

Retired Holyoke Fire Chief David LaFonde has been named the interim chief.

In Fothergill’s mind, everyone must follow the rules.

“As the chief, I’m the one who must enforce the rules and lead the department,” he said.

A hearing is set for November 1 for the firefighters who disobeyed the uniform orders.

For City manager Ash and for the firefighters involved, it will likely be a moment of truth.

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