On September 21, 2017 a town hall meeting was held to discuss the future direction of the Marsh Harbour Volunteer Fire Department. About eighty residents occupied the Anglican Hall in Marsh Harbour where the meeting was moderated by Marsh Harbour/Spring City Town Committee Chairman Roscoe Thompson III.
A proposal was made to remove the then-current fire chief, Sarone Kennedy, and a temporary board of directors / Oversight Committee to be installed to run matters pertaining to the volunteer organization. Mr. Kennedy was not present at the meeting but had been notified. His response being that he had to represent another organization he was an officer in on that same night.
The proposal was as follows:
“We propose that a seven member board be elected by this town meeting. The board will have a mandate to run through January 2018. At such time, the board will propose by-laws to be voted upon and accepted to govern the Marsh Harbour Volunteer Fire Department (MHVFD) going forward. The board will have full responsibility to appoint individuals to the fire department with the understanding that the opinions and wishes of all fire fighters, past and present, will be given the utmost consideration and respect.”
The board consists of: Vado Bootle Sr., Dale Hill, Victor Patterson, Ruth Saunders, Brenda Sawyer, Roscoe Thompson III and Shane Evans.
The present fire co-chiefs are Danny Sawyer and Jessica Cooke.
Mr. Thompson explained the rules of the meeting at the beginning. Signaling that a compiled report of failures and deficiencies of the fire department as well as a financial update were to be read, Mr. Thompson said the Fire Chief, or an agent of his, would be allowed to respond.
Mr. Thompson explained that he had helped with fighting a fire recently and that he “Didn’t realize how bad the situation had gotten,” after seeing the brigade in action. He said he witnessed that there were no hoses on the truck and other important gear was missing during the blaze. This, along with other complaints from the community, he said, prompted the evening’s meeting.
Mr. Thompson also explained that, according to former Fire Chief Norwell Gordon, the by-laws that govern the Fire Department were never voted on after being introduced in a fire meeting on October 12, 2011 and therefore not valid. Mr. Thompson said meeting minutes from the time do not indicate a vote taking place.
Brenda Sawyer, who is a part of the separate fundraising board for the MHVFD, was then asked to make a financial report. She noted that fundraising had been minimal and ineffective since Mr. Kennedy became acting Fire Chief.
Danny Sawyer was then asked to make a report on the general state of the MHVFD. He claimed that there had been avoidable loss of property due to poor response times and that the volunteers were under-trained. Mr. Sawyer indicated that Mr. Kennedy, as the fire chief, had not shown up to several fires – possibly linked to the fact that he does not live in Marsh Harbour, instead living in Casuarina Point thirty five minutes out of town.
Mr. Sawyer said that fire engines were in disrepair with only two out of five being in useable, safe condition. The VHF radios in the fire engines were also malfunctioning.
Eleven incidences of poor response time, or lack of preparation, were recited. These included complete losses of structures on August 18 and July 30; a May 5th fire behind the NIB building where other volunteer fire departments on Abaco had to respond since Mr. Kennedy allegedly did not leave Casuarina Point and could not get MHVFD to respond; an August 21 bush fire where two trucks were left on the scene unattended and ex-firefighters had to become responsible for the abandoned equipment; as well as a September 8th bush fire where the hose had no nozzle.
Most egregious of these incidences was the refusal of MHVFD to respond to a fire near the Wilson City Power Station since, according to Mr. Kennedy, Wilson City was outside of MHVFD’s “jurisdiction.” It was noted that many times the fire departments and volunteers from Hope Town, Treasure Cay, Bahama Palm Shores and Casuarina often respond and help MHVFD with fires in Marsh Harbour.
With the floor now open to questions and comments a chief with another fire department noted that the concept of hard-set “jurisdictions” does not have any bearing on Standard Operating Procedures for first responders or with the Royal Bahamas Police and Fire Services.
One resident conflated the lack of donations coming into the Dept. as a “vote of no confidence” for the fire chief. Another noted that the Dept. was volunteer-based, not government run, and therefor belongs to the community.
Regarding the election of Mr. Kennedy to Fire Chief, people close to the situation noted the election did not follow proper procedure.
Norwell Gordon, who started the MHVFD in 1964, lamented the state of the Dept. He said for a volunteer organization to work it requires mutual cooperation and a chief who does not unilaterally make decisions. He feared for the safety of the volunteers.
Danny Sawyer noted that the insurance for the fire trucks had lapsed.
After the public discussion, the Board Proposal was made to the crowd to vote on. There were none opposed within the Hall.
Mr. Kennedy was reached for comment but was unprepared to deliver remarks as of press time. However he did indicate he would be delivering a response.
Earlier in the week before the meeting, Mr. Kennedy, posting as the MHVFD’s Facebook page, said:
“I have just been informed that there is a call for a town hall meeting to discuss the future of the brigade. No one has come to me to ask about the future of the brigade! We are doing well and adding more trainees on a regular basis. Training continues on Tuesdays and Saturdays. We have never missed a response to a fire call. We have added new members and regained some old ones. We have some new equipment and techniques. The future looks good despite those who do not always agree with the progress that is being made.”
Regarding his absence from the meeting Mr. Kennedy posted via the MHVFD Facebook page:
“At 2:50 pm, I received an UNSIGNED letter saying that they hope to see me at their meeting. The letter concluded that ‘we would interpret your absence as a lack of interest in the needs and concerns of the community you serve’. 1. Why should I respond to anyone or group who does not sign their name(s) to a letter??? 2. It is CHILDISH / IMMATURE to ascribe a meaning to someone’s absence from a meeting. It is also disrespectful and appears to be an attempt to use a psychological trick to get me to attend.”
He further said that he had to attend a church service on that night as a representative of another group that he was an officer in.
The new Oversight Committee, and by extension the MHVFD, has named Danny Sawyer and Jessica Cooke as co-chiefs and claim they have a mandate to run the fire department. They say a large number of ex-volunteers have returned and as of September 25 they have repaired one of the three broken vehicles. They have relayed their intention to refocus on fundraising using the Fire Station ground with the first event (a cook-out) to be held later in October.
The Oversight Committee plans to draft new by-laws before January 2018 and present them to the public for approval.