The city gets its first fire chief who is not an up-from-the-ranks veteran, but from out of town, with Monday’s planned arrival of Eric Smith from Michigan.
”I’m going in with an open mind,” Smith, 46, said in a telephone interview Friday from his home in Plymouth, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. That’s adjacent to another suburb, Westland, where Smith has worked the past year as the Fire Department’s long deputy chief, serving as the Fire Department’s second in command in a city of 84,000.
”I have a fairly transparent personality, and don’t hold much back,” Smith added. “I fully realize that I don’t have a patent on the market of good ideas, I’ll keep an open mind, as we build a team, and we continue to progress.”
Smith’ s installation in the chief’s office of the drab and drooping 90-year-old downtown central station on School Street marks the city’s conflicted first taste of modern personnel methods in public safety. Breaking precedent, the fire chief was selected from a national field of applicants after the City Council, bowing to popular sentiment in a referendum to do the same with the position of police chief, ended Gloucester’s tradition of hiring from within, governed by the Civil Service system.
It has been more than three years since Gloucester had a full-time permanent fire chief. The last one, Barry McKay, retired in March 2009.
Deputy Phil Dench served three years as interim chief before he, too, retired n February of this year. while Deputy Steve Aiello had stood in as acting chief until early June, when a Memorial Day firefighters’ protest in which an honor guard of firefighters -- including Aiello -- turned their backs to the mayor during the ceremonies led to Kirk’s appointment of another acting leader, Robert DiPoli. The retired Needham chief and past president of the International Association of Fire Fighters brought stability to the force, by all accounts.
”Smith seems like a nice guy,” said firefighters’ union President Phil Bouchie. “He’s coming into a department whose waters have been calmed and morale has been picked up. Chief DiPoli’s presence was good for the department and Chief Smith.”
DiPoli’s last day on the job was Friday. Before he departed for home in Medfield, he said in a telephone interview that he thoroughly enjoyed the six weeks he spent in Gloucester. In his final week, he led the force in knocking down a major house fire, and joined with the department in grieving at the death of firefighter, Michael Smith, who succumbed to cancer at 43.
DiPoli spent most of his career in a very different kind of town, wealthy suburban Needham, where he worked his way up from a trash collector and capped his career with election as president of the IAFF. He said he was looking forward to giving his full attention to the tomato plants and vegetables in his backyard garden, but valued the unplanned assignment in Gloucester and would look forward to returning as a private citizen.
DiPoli said that while the rolling stock and infrastructure here cannot compare to the top shelf quality he enjoyed in Needham, the department and people in Gloucester were unsurpassed.
He also said he saw the building blocks of a first-rate fire department in Gloucester, and found the rank-and-file here to be dedicated and generous. “I have urged the mayor and the firefighters to discuss their differences candidly.” His cards-on-the-table personality was powerfully appealing, said Bouchie.
“Chief DiPoli has been generous with his wisdom and experience while in Gloucester for these past few weeks,” the mayor said Friday. “I am grateful for the way he has laid the groundwork for a successful transition to incoming Chief Smith. We all know change is hard and Chief DiPoli has made it easier for everyone.
As would be expected, not all segments of the city favored cross pollination from an open application process for chief. Three councilors voted against Smith to let their feelings be known that there was something to be said for earning the trust of the corps to qualify for the job. In the meantime, however, Aiello has urged his department colleagues to welcome and work with the new chief.
“People have been welcoming,” Smith said Friday. “Obviously, there has been some turmoil. I expected that. It would have been the same in Westland. My guys would have done the same thing.
“They value their traditions here in Gloucester,” he added. “I respect that. I would have been concerned about taking the job if they didn’t think that way, that any one of them could lead them.”
Smith said he and his wife and two boys would drive east over the weekend on a schedule that would put him at work Monday morning.
The rest of the summer for the Smiths will include the tying up of loose ends in Michigan, closing on the house there -- and finding a place to live here to begin the process of putting down roots in this old town’s thin soil.
“Coming in as outsider,” Smith said, “I’m the new guy. I no question have to earn the trust.
“They already respect the position (of chief),” he said, “but they need to respect the man behind the badge, too, and the only way to do that is to earn it.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.