The arrival today of new Gloucester Fire Chief Eric Smith doesn’t mean that all four of Gloucester’s fire stations will magically be opened overnight, or that the Fire Department will be able to regularly staff the stations and both rescue squads without perpetually having to conjure up more money for overtime to meet “minimum manning” contract demands.
To his credit, Smith recognizes the need to come in with, as he put it, “an open mind” regarding the department he will lead beginning today. And the same should go for the department, which has not had a permanent leader since Barry McKay bowed out in March 2009, and has had two acting chiefs -- in-house deputy Steve Aiello and retired Needham Fire Chief Robert DiPoli -- just since three-year interim chief Phil Dench retired at the end of February.
But make no mistake: the “new model” of Fire Department that Mayor Carolyn Kirk has touted in the past begins to take shape today, when Smith takes the reins at the 90-year-old Central Fire Station. And we certainly hope he will get the support he needs, from the department and from other city officials, who should have already seen through DiPoli’s effective two-month acting tenure that they need not fear having someone from outside Gloucester leading a department that needs a fresh approach, likely a new department structure, and new ideas for scheduling and deploying personnel so to better serve residents’ public safety needs.
Smith, of course, will need to work with his department and its union to carry out changes that involve the firefighters’ contract, whether that means opening the door to part-time personnel like a reserve corps used by the Police Department, or some other means of beefing up staffing while holding down costs. He will also need to work with firefighters regarding work schedules -- drawing from his experience with the Westland (Mich.) Fire Department, which serves a community of 84,000 with four fire stations through a Fire Department staff similar in size to Gloucester’s.
He can, of course, expect resistance from those who feel the department’s status quo is the only way of doing things. But Smith also admits he doesn’t “have a patent on the market of good ideas,” suggesting that firefighters’ ideas for developing a better department are more than welcome. That’s precisely the spirit that the department, the city and its residents need.
Smith’s hiring represents a landmark transition for the Gloucester Fire Department. Let’s hope that all involved welcome the new chief, and help him embark toward creating the “new model” of Fire Department that’s long overdue.