In the 90-year-old Central Fire Station -- and in an office with a former chief’s name on the door, a phone system he couldn’t get into -- Eric Smith began his time Monday as Gloucester’s new fire chief, and its first permanent head of the department in more than three years.
While he admits he wasn’t necessarily prepared for minor office problems like an uncooperative phone, Smith spent most of his first day on the job doing something he came ready to do – listening to firefighters.
Smith, 46, chosen by Mayor Carolyn Kirk and confirmed by the City Council last month, came to Gloucester from the Westland (Mich.) Fire Department. He’s Gloucester’s first fire chief from outside the city limits, and arrives on the heels of a six-week acting stint by retured Needham Fire Chief Robert DiPoli.
Smith says he has a lot to learn about the department and the city before he initiates any change in the way it operates, and he spent Monday morning talking to the firefighters on duty about where they want the department to go. Firefighters, citizens, and the city administration will all play a role in charting that course, Smith said. Until he can gauge that, he said, the Gloucester Fire Department will run as it has for the last few years.
Smith says he’s impressed with the quality of firefighters in Gloucester’s department, and with they welcome they gave him. He says he looks forward to working with them.
“They’re a great group of guys, passionate about what they do and passionate about they community,” Smith said, “They really care about proving a service.”
And they’re concerned, he said, about closed fire stations and having the resources to provide reliable fire and emergency medical services to the city at large. Smith started on a day where both Bay View and Magnolia stations remained closed, and two ambulances were out of service for repairs. 14 men were on duty that day, it takes 18 to open Magnolia fire station.
While closed stations are the department’s biggest concern, Smith said, he doesn’t have answers on how to fix that yet. And resolving that issue will take striking a balance between how the department staffs shifts, and how the city funds the department, he added. It will mean, he said, working with the mayor on funding and with the union on the contract.
Long term, he added, the department should assess where its stations should be to better serve residents and improve response times.
He says he expects to spend the coming year much like he spent Monday. With a set budget and union contract, the Fire Department capabilities and structure are locked in for the year. Smith came in after Kirk, then-Acting Chief Steve Aiello and the firefighters’ union agreed to a year’s extension of the current contract, and after the City Council approved the Fiscal year 2013 budget.
With those set in stone for now, there’s not much room for change. He will take the coming year assessing the department’s staff, equipment and fire stations. Until he does that, Smith said, he’s not going to propose any changes.
“These new ideas won’t just come from me,” said Smith.
Smith said he’s also getting used to how an East Coast fire department operates. At least, he said, coming to Gloucester didn’t mean changing time zones.
He spent 21 years in Westland starting as a line firefighter and working his way up to the department’s second in command as its lone deputy chief . Westland fire ran a budget of $11.6 million last year, the department carries it’s pension costs within it’s budget, and covers a 20 mile city outside of Ann Arbor. Westland is a city of some 84,000, 28 miles west of Detroit.
Last year, Westland’s department had 9,500 fire and emergency medical services. But its firefighters work in three-man platoons with a longer shift. Gloucester’s Fire Department runs four-man platoon. His department faced the same challenges with staffing and funding as Gloucester does. All cities right now have that problem, he said.
Though the department faces challenges going forward, Smith says the guys he’s working with are the right ones for the job.
“They’re stellar guys,” he said. “I had a couple back home I could have done without, but I haven’t met those here.”
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at email@example.com.