'An inclusive demeanor': New fire chief sought in Wilmington

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WILMINGTON — Since Ken March left on a sour note in June, the members of the Wilmington Fire Department have been doing some soul-searching and seeing whether a full-time chief is really necessary.

"I think it's very important that we have this," Assistant Fire Chief Scott Moore said during a meeting Sept. 6. "We've had our ups and downs with full-time chiefs. But I think because we did it this way, we have a better idea of what we want to see, to make sure we don't go through the things we've been through before. I think it will work. It's time to get the ball rolling, I believe."

Moore was not alone in the assessment. It was unanimously supported by those involved in the process.

Gretchen Havreluk, the town's economic development consultant, had been interim town manager when she began a process suggested by Peter Lynch, chief of safety at the Vermont Division of Fire Safety, who had previously been assistant fire chief in Brattleboro. Former state representative Dave Larsen was selected to help with the talks.

"The idea was to have a facilitator, not necessarily a fire guru," Havreluk said. "Someone who is trusted by the community."

Select Board Chairman Tom Fitzgerald acted as a liaison to the board.

Establishing protocol for the fire chief and review of that position, Havreluk said, "is crucial to moving forward." The plan is to create a job description that's "clean and comprehensive," she added.

The new hire should have an "inclusive demeanor," Havreluk told the board, "and it's the fire department, not the fire chief's department."

"Everyone talked about communication," she said. "Communication is really key moving forward."

March's resignation letter stated the workplace had "manifested into an environment that is toxic as well as hostile."

"I can no longer subject myself to the absence of integrity, morals and ethics that are an ingrained part of this department," March wrote, blaming "actions or inaction" by the town administration and officers of the fire department for the shift in dynamics.

Cited reasons for the recommendation of a full-time chief have to do with the need for conducting training exercises, retaining and recruiting new firefighters, keeping up with vehicle and equipment maintenance, and improving public relations with the department. Havreluk also pointed to multiple fire agreements with developers in town and the Act 250 process, which requires input on fire safety and municipal impact.

The hope is to open the job up to current volunteers first. But Town Manager Scott Tucker is looking into whether that will be allowed.

Since Moore started filling in as interim chief, he said, three new members are now certified firefighters and inactive members have returned to the department.

"The equipment is up to shape again," he added. "Attitudes are 10 times better. It has very little to do with me but it has everything to do with the men and women who volunteer down there."

With winter coming, Moore worried he might lose interest among the members. Also, they might start getting busy with other work.

On hiring a new chief, Moore said, "The sooner the better."

Of a roster of about 30 to 35 members, about 20 show up regularly, according to Moore. Only about six or seven members would show up as often last year, he said.

"People aren't picking and choosing anymore," he told the board. "It's great. It's unbelievable what's happening here."

Fitzgerald said the last two chiefs were not part of the department when they were hired for the position.

"It's a matter of the culture and understanding what's expected," he said. "And it didn't happen for the prior two."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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