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Consultant: Warwick FD on road to repair

WARWICK — The town’s Fire Department is headed in the right direction, according to a consultant, but still has a ways to go.

The town hired Ernest Horn, of Municipal Consultants of New England, to take a look at the Fire Department and its management under Chief Ronald Gates.

Earlier this year, a handful of firefighters brought concerns to Town Coordinator David Young.

“The key thing, to me, was the lack of any kind of written guidance on what to do in various situations,” said Young. “Concerns were also expressed about the department’s leadership.”

Both areas were discussed at length by Horn, and Gates has already begun to address these and other areas of the report.

“I’ve got a lot of faith (in the chief and the department) now,” said Young. “Before, I had a lot of doubt.”

Gates was hired as fire chief in October of 2011. At the time, he had been a member of the Fire Department for nine years.

Horn, who was paid $3,000, has three decades of experience in public safety, and is the joint Fire and Police Chief of Mendon. He spent about eight weeks reviewing the department, said Young.

On Monday, Horn issued the town a report of his findings, as well as recommendations, and summarized them at the Selectboard meeting.

Where WFD stands

Horn stressed the importance of a written set of standard operating guidelines, so firefighters would know how to handle the various situations that may come up when fighting a fire. Rather than a rigid set of rules and regulations, these would be more elastic, giving some leeway for adjustment as things evolve on a fire scene.

On the subject of management, Horn said Gates is still finding his own style.

“Chief Gates uses a participatory style of management. He likes to hear what people think, but he might allow people to have too much influence on his decisions at times,” said Horn. “While I was here, he seemed to transition more towards being autocratic.”

“There is nothing in his management style that we found flawed,” he continued. “He needs to pick a style. It may be participatory, autocratic or somewhere in between.”

Horn said that, in his short time examining the department, he has seen Gates become more confident, and get better at communicating with subordinates and superiors alike. He expects Gates to continue to improve as time goes on.

“The chief is new. You’ve got to give him time,” said Horn. “He’s also doing it all by himself.”

It can be tough, said Horn, for any part-time chief to run a department unassisted.

“It’s not reasonable, or fair, to hold the chief to the standards of a full-time fire chief,” said Horn.

Horn recommended that Gates delegate some of his administrative duties to his firefighters, such as formulating job descriptions for each rank in the department.

Warwick’s Fire Department is staffed by on-call volunteers, and Gates holds down a full-time job in addition to his responsibilities as chief.

Horn also recommended that Gates participate in seminars and training programs available at the state Firefighting Academy in Stow. Gates said he will seek such training.

WFD’s to-do list

Horn issued 24 recommendations with his report. Some were things he felt the town may want to consider in the future. A few, such as a rapid intervention team to provide fresh manpower, are already in place through mutual aid agreements with other towns. Others, though, Horn highly recommended that the town address.

Some of the “should-do” suggestions include testing turnout gear, air tanks, hoses and other equipment, and replacing them as needed.

Coming up with a set of standard operating guidelines was also high on the list. The document, though not a set of hard-and-fast rules, will give firefighters direction for what to do in certain fire scene situations.

“I agree we need (standard operating guidelines),” Gates replied. “It was never brought to my attention in my 10 years on the department that we didn’t have them. We just did what we did (on scene).”

Young said the lack of these guidelines scared him. He added that having them in place would add liability protection to the town, should something go wrong during an active fire.

The chief could save some work on those guidelines, as well as department rules and regulations, by taking them from a similar town and tailoring them to fit Warwick, said Horn. He cautioned against using either document word-for-word, as no two towns or departments are exactly alike.

Horn commended the department on its vehicle maintenance, noting the good working condition of engine No. 1, a 1957 Dodge pump truck. The department’s newest vehicle is a 1984 GMC truck. Though Horn found problems with the GMC, he said Gates had them fixed as soon as they were brought to light.

Horn advised the town to come up with a plan to replace the aging trucks, and pointed out that federal grants could cover the brunt of the costs.

Gates said that, while he’d like to seek grants for new fire trucks, the department is ineligible until it has a new fire station in which to store them.

The Warwick Fireman’s Association, a nonprofit group independent from the department, has been raising money for a new station. It plans to begin construction once architectural plans are ready.

The distinction between the association and the Fire Department has caused confusion in the past. While Gates is in charge of the department, the association has its own leadership.

Horn advised that the distinction be made clearer. Confusion between the two has led some to believe the chief should be in charge of the building project, which has caused problems.

Horn also advocated that the town raise the department’s annual budget, which he called “lean.”

A capital planning committee, he said, could be formed by the town, to take into account the equipment needs of the Fire, Police and Highway departments, as well as schools and other major expenses.

Personnel issues

There are some conflicting personalities on the Fire Department, said Horn. He said the chief needs to remember that he’s the boss. He could be more assertive with some of the firefighters, and could listen to others a bit more, said Horn.

Some department members, Horn said, need to resolve their issues with each other.

“A couple people need to go out back, have a fist-fight, bury the hatchet and move on,” he said.

Though there are some strong personalities on the department, Horn said many of the firefighters are quite intelligent, and said Gates may find them an asset.

Horn said Gates should also use disciplinary action when necessary, and not be afraid to fire someone if every other avenue has been exhausted.

Gates is already taking action to address some of Horn’s recommendations.

When Horn suggested that Gates find a mentor, Gates spoke up, and said he’s already found one.

That mentor, former Turners Falls Fire Chief Raymond Godin, was at the meeting in support of Gates.

Horn said the chief needs to improve his communication with the Selectboard and others, though he said he’s begun to see an improvement there, as well.

Horn said he would return to town in the fall, after officials have had a chance to go over the report. According to his contract, he will also return within a year’s time to review the department’s efforts going forward.

The full report and recommendations will soon be available on the town website, www.warwickma.org.

Young admitted that he and Gates haven’t always been able to communicate well, but noted that things seem to be improving.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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