January 9

Skowhegan town manager terminates long-time fire chief

Tom Keene, who’d been chief for 21 years, lost both legs to diabetes complications, but says he can still do his job.

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN — Long-time Skowhegan Fire Chief Tom Keene, who’d been on medical leave since September, was relieved of his duties Dec. 30 by the town manager.

click image to enlarge

DISAPPOINTED: Former Skowhegan Fire Chief Tom Keene speaks about the recent termination of his job while at his home on Thursday. Both his legs were amputated during the last two years to complications from diabetes. He had been chief in Skowhegan for 21 years and a firefighter there for more than 30 years.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

FAMILY IMPACT: Sheryl Keene speaks about how she and and husband Tom have been affected since he learned last year that he had been released from his position as Skowhegan fire chief. Tom Keene had been a firefighter for 30 years and both his legs were amputated because of complications of diabetes.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Keene, 58, who had been chief for 21 years, said he is considering hiring an attorney to fight the dismissal.

“It’s not the way I wanted to go,” Keene said Thursday. “Yes, there are hard feelings, but I’m not angry. I’m disappointed.”

Keene had been a firefigheter for more than 40 years. In the last two years, both his legs were amputated because of complications from diabetes. He went on medical leave Sept. 19 after his most recent surgery.

He said he’s ready to return to his administrative duties as chief, and told town officials in a Dec. 12 letter that he was cleared by his doctor to return to work, with some limitations, including needing a driver for the three months until he’s fitted with prosthetic legs.

“I didn’t see this coming,” he said. “I was kind of surprised and was offered the opportunity to provide a resignation and I chose not to.”

Keene said he didn’t think the dismissal was personal. He has not spoken to any of the selectmen about it.

Town Manager John Doucette Jr. said he had to terminate Keene.

“He’s not capable under the job description in state statute to perform as a fire chief.”

“It’s very hard, but as a town manager, I have to look at the Fire Department, the safety of the town — are we putting more of a burden on other employees there not having the fire chief capable of doing those things?” Doucette said. “I have to weigh those parts of it, even though it’s hard because I’ve known him for a long time.”

Doucette said Keene was not fired, but terminated because he he can no longer do the job, and he did it without the Board of Selectmen’s involvement.

“He was terminated by me — I do the hiring and I do the firing,” he said. “He just was not physically able to do the job of fire chief at a fire scene. He’s dealing with hoses and all kinds of things at a fire that he would need to deal with.”

But Keene said, “The chief really is not a firefighter anymore. You’ve been a firefighter, but you’re not a firefighter as chief, you’re an administrator.”

Under state law, a fire chief is the director of all firefighting operations and training. That person is responsible for the maintenance of equipment and buildings and the preparation of an annual budget to the community’s chief administrator.

The chief shall also “suppress disorder and tumult at the scene of a fire and generally direct all operations to prevent further destruction and damage,” according to the law.

Doucette, who is set to retire Feb. 28, could not be reached for further explanation of how state law applied to.

Online job postings for the position of fire chief in Maine, including the Maine Municipal Association, call for annual physical ability testing, stating the fire chief should have the ability to perform work requiring good physical condition.

Keene said he and his wife, Sheryl, are researching their medical insurance and disability options.

They are also considering hiring a lawyer.

“We definitely don’t want to hurt anybody,” said Sheryl Keene. “We don’t want to do anything against this town — but I feel what they did to him, they could have handled a lot differently.

“He’s still very functional. He’s very capable of doing the administrative part of his job. Most fire chiefs do not go into a fire, they’re the administrator. I feel they did not try to work around his disability at all.”

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