Follow the chief’s lead before and after fire

Friday, January 12, 2018

It wasn’t surprising recently to hear Bernardston’s long-time fire chief, Peter Shedd, contend his department could run more efficiently if the chief, not a 12-member board of engineers, were in charge.

The town’s Selectboard has been discussing changing from the antiquated board system to a strong chief setup, giving Shedd and his successors more complete authority and decision-making power.

Currently, even day-to-day operation of the 18-member Fire Department is handled by the board of engineers, which includes the chief. The board makes basic calls like whether and how to approve vehicle repairs.

“I only have absolute power at a fire scene or major incident,” Shedd explained.

The current system becomes especially cumbersome when it comes to communication, planning and finances involving other town officials like the Selectboard.

Often the board will ask Shedd a question, and he’ll have to relay the question back to the board of engineers before providing a definitive answer.

Such complications are what led Selectboard Chairman Stanley Garland to propose switching to a strong chief system.

“This just makes it so when you need something done you can talk to one person instead of 12,” Garland explained during a meeting late last year, when he first proposed the idea.

Shedd of course sees the same benefit.

“A lot of times I could just make the decisions … I wouldn’t have to wait to get a quorum of engineers together and convince seven out of 12 to go along with things … The bigger the group, the harder it is to get everybody on board.”

The change would make Shedd’s job easier, and that’s good reason enough to make the switch.

Volunteer fire chief jobs these days are hard enough as it is.

Just look at other departments around the county where chiefs are bowing out because of the stress and long hours.

Shedd says that if the voters give him that direct authority, possibly at this spring’s annual town meeting, he would still seek advice from other members of the Fire Department, including his assistant chief, two captains and two lieutenants.

Shedd has been working for the department for decades and has been chief for much of that time. We doubt he got to be chief for so long by ignoring the counsel of those around him.

The people of Bernardston have trusted Shedd to direct his fellow volunteers when fire threatens their homes, a situation where he does have complete authority.

So why shouldn’t they trust him to run the department as a strong chief the rest of the time?