Study urges town to look for full-time fire chief
by Lauren Harkawik
Sep 15, 2017 | 2724 views | 0 0 comments | 124 124 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Members of the Wilmington Fire Department march through Wilmington during the 2016 Memorial Day parade. A new report says the town should hire a full-time chief to fill the position, which has been vacant since May.
Members of the Wilmington Fire Department march through Wilmington during the 2016 Memorial Day parade. A new report says the town should hire a full-time chief to fill the position, which has been vacant since May.
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WILMINGTON- At its meeting on Wednesday, September 6, the selectboard gave new town manager Scott Tucker the go-ahead to begin the search process for a new full-time fire chief in the town. The move came after a recommendation from former interim town manager Gretchen Havreluk and assistant fire chief Scott Moore to hire a full-time fire chief, rather than making the position part-time. The recommendation followed a study that brought to light the priorities of the fire department’s membership as it looks toward the future.

In May, fire chief Ken March resigned, citing interpersonal tension in the department. In an interview this week, Havreluk said that the circumstances of March’s resignation had given her pause. “At that time there was a lot of angst within the department,” said Havreluk. “I don’t want to get into how it got to that point, because it’s irrelevant at this point. But I just kept saying, ‘We need to be looking forward, so what does forward look like? What is the future of this department? Let’s think big picture.’”

Havreluk called Peter Lynch. “Peter used to be the assistant fire chief in Brattleboro, so I called him for advice,” said Havreluk. Havreluk said it was through that conversation that she came to the conclusion that she should bring in a facilitator who could help sort out the future of the department. Ultimately, former educator and state representative Dave Larsen agreed to facilitate the discussions.

Larsen summarized the results of his three meetings with the department in a report submitted to the selectboard. The first, on June 27, was limited to Havreluk, selectboard chair Tom Fitzgerald, and two department officers, assistant chief Scott Moore and Bobby Maynard. The second, on July 25, included Fitzgerald, Moore, Havreluk, and department officers Keith Johnson and Donnie Wilson. The third, on August 8, was open to all department members.

At the first two meetings, a process for the study was discussed, as was the job description of fire chief. Long-term goals for the department were also compiled, including improving relationships between the fire chief and department officers; better communication between the town manager, chief, and members; improved public relations between the chief, schools, and townspeople; and relocation of the fire department, which is currently located in a flood zone and was deeply affected by Tropical Storm Irene.

The third meeting, Larsen reported, was attended by “at least 22 members, including officers.

“It is notable that these firefighters attended the meeting immediately after returning from a two-hour fire call,” wrote Larsen. “They were eager to be heard.”

Larsen facilitated a conversation that addressed whether members preferred a full-time or part-time chief; what personal characteristics they desired in a chief; what skills, knowledge or abilities they wanted the chief to possess; what they would like to see involved in the hiring process; and any final thoughts they wanted to share with the town manager or selectboard as it pertained to the hiring process.

On the question of whether members would like to see a full-time or part-time chief, Larsen reported that the response was unanimously in support of full-time, with members saying that the responsibilities of a fire chief were too numerous to be handled part time. On the question of what type of personal qualities they would like to see in a chief, members said that they’d like someone who is a good communicator, who is honest, dedicated, and is a disciplinarian. A commitment to Wilmington and involvement in town events and affairs were also cited.

Regarding what skills they hoped a new fire chief would possess, knowledge of fire service and fire command were top on the list. Mechanical and computer skills and the ability to teach were also highlighted. Experience as an officer and a recruiter and in management and administration were also important to the group.

Members said that they would like to see the search focused on the New England area, with one responder saying they would prefer someone from Vermont. The membership would also like at least one, but preferably three firefighters or officers on the hiring committee.

With regard to what else the membership wanted to tell the town manager, Larsen quoted several responses that highlighted support and community, perhaps indicating a shift from the environment March noted in his May letter. “We must be ready to give our new chief the help we can,” wrote one responder. “Communication between chief and officers is critical,” wrote another.

In his conclusions and observations of his report, Larsen wrote, “For various reasons department morale and participation have recently improved. The members of the department are very eager to see this continue. … It is important to the department members that the next fire chief be an inclusive leader, that the chief and members have an interdependent relationship. As one firefighter said, ‘It’s not the chief’s department, it’s our (members and chief) department.’”

In an addendum to the report, Havreluk praised the camaraderie among the volunteers at the department. “The camaraderie among them is that of a family, with loyalty and disagreements however respectfully, and they have each other’s care and safety as their number one priority.” In an interview this week, Havreluk echoed those sentiments.

“The strength within the organization is really powerful. and I really honor that in them,” said Havreluk. “It’s really important that the community really honor these men and women. It’s great to see their commitment to the community.”
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