Charlemont, Heath seek new fire chiefs

  • Heath Fire Chief Ken Gilbert, at right, is pictured with US Congressman Richard Neal in this 2016 photo. Recorder file photo—

  • Charlemont Fire Chief Douglas Annear Recorder file photo

Recorder Staff
Friday, December 15, 2017

West County is losing two veteran fire chiefs at the end of December, and Heath and Charlemont town officials are looking for replacements, and seeking long-term solutions for what seems a perpetual shortage of firefighters.

Charlemont Fire Chief Douglas Annear, 57, who has been with that Fire Department since age 15, will remain a firefighter. But he says the workload — including state-mandated requirements for fire code inspections — takes much more time than the 10 hours per week he had expected to put in for fire chief duties.

Charlemont has posted an advertisement on its website, seeking an interim fire chief to manage the 14-member Fire Department from January through June 2018. Applications are due Monday by 5 p.m. At Monday night’s Selectboard meeting, the board will review applications, a job description for interim fire chief and possibly form a hiring committee for that position.

In nearby Heath, Fire Chief Ken Gilbert, 68, has also given notice he would like to retire from the chief’s position. Gilbert said he started working as a volunteer firefighter for the town department after he retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2006. He says he doesn’t know yet if he will leave the department altogether. “If I stay on, I will be limiting my duties,” he said this week.

Gilbert pointed out that, as a fire chief over age 65, he has a waiver to continue receiving health insurance. But firefighters can’t get this insurance after age 69 — “so we have to be out of the business by age 70,” he said. Gilbert said he would like to work with his successor while he is still on the Fire Department — “so I can share my corporate knowledge,” he said.

Gilbert said it’s getting harder to find volunteer firefighters. “You have a lot of ongoing training. A lot of people work out of town,” he pointed out. “If both spouses are employed, it becomes harder.”

“The Franklin County fire chiefs are all pretty much doing mutual aid right now. There’s a real shortage of manpower,” Gilbert said. “The options out there are pretty limited.”

Heath Selectboard member Robyn Provost-Carlson said the board has been talking with Gilbert and others about a succession plan.

The Selectboard has scheduled a meeting Monday night with Gilbert and with Colrain Fire Chief Nickolas Anzuoni, to discuss the Heath Fire Department. That meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in Sawyer Hall.

“Within the next week, we expect to have a plan in place to ensure that our department remains intact and continues to serve the people of Heath and our surrounding neighbors,” Provost said. “Once the plan is complete, we will be talking to the dedicated members of our Fire Department so that each individual (knows) what has been decided. The BOS (Board of Selectmen) will then be notifying our townspeople and the general public,” she said.

“Chief Gilbert has been an asset to our department and will continue to work with the department through the upcoming transitions,” she said.

Charlemont Selectboard member Beth Bandy said Charlemont and Heath “are exploring ways to share fire services in the long term, but in the short term, Charlemont is independently hiring an interim fire chief to replace Douglas Annear at the beginning of the new year.

In October, at a Charlemont Selectboard meeting, Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan said small fire departments are facing many hurdles, including budget constraints and rising calls for ambulances and fire services in towns with growing elderly populations and a low rate of young volunteers who are willing or able to put in 100 hours of basic firefighter training. Strahan said fire chiefs have more responsibilities now than they had 20 years ago. These include more inspections for code enforcement, which includes inspecting smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, school fire drills, and public education. Also, the costs of training, fire equipment and turnout gear have risen.

In 2014, Wendell and New Salem opted to share New Salem’s fire chief, Joseph Cuneo, after Wendell’s fire chief of 37 years, Everett Ricketts, retired at age 75. According to a case study by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, the towns had long worked together; Cuneo was very familiar with both towns, and sharing one fire chief enabled them to offer Cuneo a full-time position between the two towns. The two towns share his expenses and the fire chief is able to evenly divide his time between managing separate fire departments for each town.