By Marjorie Nesin
---- — A little more than a year ago, Eric Smith’s qualifications and experience to become Gloucester’s new fire chief came under fire, just before the city offered him the job.
Now, after his first year on the job, Mayor Carolyn Kirk – who chose the former Michigan deputy — has written a public letter commending his accomplishments over the last 12 months.
Despite a stretch that included two fatal fires in January and April, Smith managed to negotiate a new fire contract, fill all open positions in the department, assist in setting up a new emergency communication system, and work toward extended station openings, Kirk pointed out, calling his work “exemplary.”
“Your calm and patient demeanor coupled with your high level of competence and professionalism has allowed you to enjoy the support of the community, and the respect of the men and women under your control,” Kirk said in her letter to the chief.
Some in the community had initially expressed concerns about Smith as a choice for chief, pointing to questions over his command experience, with the city ordinance requiring three years in a leadership position. But, the independent organization that fielded Smith as a candidate assured city councilors and administrators that Smith’s work as battalion chief combined with time as deputy chief met the requirements.
When five fires blazed in Gloucester during a 10-day span in January — including one that left a woman dead in a house on Windsor Lane off Western Avenue — Smith dove into a public awareness campaign, Kirk said, in the aftermath of the “two fatal fires in the city caused by carelessness.”
Smith said Tuesday he has had a great year in Gloucester, pointing to new contract negotiations that will split the department into three groups of 24 firefighters, rather than four groups of 18, allowing outlier stations to open full time by July 2014.
“Everything went really well, in some cases better than expected,” Smith said, “with the changes and things we’ve been able to put in place.”
Even before the new contract has taken full effect, with officials still fine tuning small bits and pieces of its final numbers and preparing to implement their plan, an overtime hours management system under Smith has allowed the department to open Bay View Station 75 percent more of the time.
Filling out the department roster was also part of Smith’s preparation. He hired seven new firefighters and a senior clerk for fire prevention.
Along with setting the new firefighter contract into motion, the next steps forward for Smith will include relocating the city’s Emergency Operations Center to O’Maley Innovation Middle School, and helping the city plan steps toward a public safety building.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.