By Steven Fletcher
City officials are poised to open a search for a new fire chief beginning in September, leaving them seven months to find interim Fire Chief Phillip Dench's successor.
Dench retires on Feb. 28, 2012, when his contract as interim chief ends. The city aims to have a new chief by January, set to start in March. Dench has served as interim chief for more than two years, since former Chief Barry McKay resigned after the fire that destroyed the Lorraine apartments and ravaged Middle Street. Dench's contract expires in February.
Interim Police Chief Michael Lane's contract also expires next year, though the city has no plans for a search to fill his spot yet.
The upcoming search will be the city's first fire chief search outside of Massachusetts Civil Service. Civil Service required the city to search locally, often within the department to fill the empty desk. But, a January City Council vote broke that process wide open.
Now, city officials can hire a fire chief from inside the department's School Street headquarters, but Mayor Carolyn Kirk said the city will look for anyone who brings the most qualified candidate — inside or outside the Fire Department.
"The search should be open to all qualified candidates," she said, "regardless of whether they are internal or external candidates."
Kirk said the actual search will begin in September, but the mayor said she'll request the City Council to form a full search committee by the end of August. That search committee is viewed as part of the city's new hiring process, voted in by the Council in January, when it pulled the fire chief's position out of civil service.
The measure calls for a city councilor, the Personnel Director - David Bain — and four residents to sit on the committee, joined by two firefighters selected by the department's union and the city's Emergency Management Director, Miles Schlichte. The mayor is to appoint the final member, subject to the City Council's review.
For some, the search comes a little to late. Both Dench and Lane have served as interim chiefs for nearly two years. Interim Superintendent Joseph Connolly, who left the district at the end of the school year, served for one full school year.
Former City Councilor Jason Grow, who pushed pulling the fire chief's position from Civil Service in 2009, said the search should have started as soon as McKay and former Police Chief John Beaudette retired under fire in March and May 2009, with the current interims filling the position until the search ended.
"The purpose of an 'interim' position is to bridge the temporary gap between permanent appointments," he said.
Grow added that any opening in a permanent position should have triggered the selection process.
Kirk said she didn't begin the searches because of contract pressure, and wanted to wait until the state Legislature decided what it would do with Civil Service. Kirk said she would begin the search when the dust settled, and when Dench and Lane's two year contracts ended.
The search for a new chief also follows the third critical review of the city's fire department. The department faced a management audit in 2009, and two after action reports — the first on the December 2007 Lorraine and temple fire, the more recent one outlining a series of incident command flaws and other issues at the scene of the to-pronged blaze that gutted 14 Pleasant St. and seriously damaged 16 Pleasant as well.
With the fire department facing dire calls for improvement, Kirk said the search needs residents to take part. She said the city doesn't have specific goals for the new chief, but said the whoever takes over needs to follow up on the technical aspects of the fire department audits.
"The community input couldn't have come at a more important time," she said.
The firefighter's union wants to address those aspects as well.
Phil Bouchie, union president, said the Firefighter's union doesn't have a preference on where the new chief comes from. He said the union only wants someone in a permanent role who can tackle the challenges the department faces going forward.
"We want a guy or gal who can come in there and effect positive change," he said.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.