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Wilmington Fire Chief Sam Hill retires

READ MORE: Wilmington Fire Chief Sam Hill retires
WILMINGTON -- After more than a half-century of service, Chief Hill is retiring. His retirement celebration Monday is free and open to the public. It runs from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. at City Hall. Chief Hill announced his retirement last September. For 20 of the last 50 years of his employment he has served as Wilmington's fire chief. A nationwide search is underway to find his replacement.

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Charting the course

While an outside consultant has been selected to consider applicants for this Chief Hill's replacement, I wonder if the emergency service community, community leaders, and the citizens of the City of Wilmington have provided the consultant with well-informed guidance as to the areas of competence and experience that his replaement should possess? Given the City's recent history of growth, it's coastal location, and hospitality to industry, the candidate cannot be of traditional fire service stock. Nearly all fire chief applicants today will have served a community as a career firefighter, and advanced through the ranks of a similar oranization. Few will have sought the advanced degrees and diversity of career experiences necessary to lead a professional department through the next decade of Wilmington's growth. I hope that those advising the consultant will seek someone with a firm grasp of not only fire code enforcement, but also a documented history of proactive code management. This might include active involvement in legislative development or enforcement of community-implemented programs for siting of high-hazard occupancies such as fuel stations, hotels, or industrial facilites (shining examples of these programs can be found in Phoenix and Austin, TX). Wilmington's selection should have have a history of advocacy for ideas that are "the right thing", even if not popular, to include advocating for incentives or requirements for the installation of residential fire sprinkler systems. Though it pains many who came to the fire department to fight fire, today's career fire services find fully three-fourths of all responses are to answer the emergency medical needs of their community's citizens. In US cities with the best survival rates for sudden cardiac death, survival is attributable in large part to the rapid first response of well-trained firefighters. Model programs can be found in Seattle, and as close to home as Raleigh. As this is the overwhelming majority of the work of today's fire service, a candidate's ability to effectively integrate with local emergency medical service providers, without losing sight of the fire suppression mission of their agency, may be the most necessary experiential requirment our community should advance. With pending legislation that may extend the right to bargain collectively to firefighters, even in our right-to-work state, Wilmington's candidate should be well-educated in the area of labor-management relations, if not experienced with collective bargaining from both sides of the fence. While the role of the the Wilmington Firefighter's Local has, to this point, focused on supporting community needs and emergent personal needs of its members, they belong to a much larger alliance of firefighters well-equipped to push for much-needed improvements to their working environment. These include affordable (and even on-duty) access to collegiate education, competitive compensation, and staffing to facilitate nationally accepted minimum company staffing without dependence on excessive use of personnel on overtime. Wilmington's chief must have demonstrable experience in interaction with the media, and mastery of written and oral communication. It is no secret that few fire service agencies require significant accredited education for thier employees, and as a result few fire chiefs are able to communicate in a way that makes them effective in responding to the educated governing bodies and populace that fund their operations. Finally, a chief for our community must still be a firefighter at heart. If he doesn't show his face at the major fires, if she can't (in a city of our size) recognize the faces and names of her troops, if the line personnel in the organization where he works today wouldn't fight fire with him, we will have picked the wrong applicant. Finding the person to fill these shoes will not be an easy task. The City did not go cheap in its search for, or eventual selection and hire of, its chief of police. It cannot do that here either. In the fire service world, there are chiefs who fit the bill, and who could do a three year overhaul that would chart the right course while alienating some of the wonderful folks who come to work willing to lay their lives on the line for us each day. What Wilmington needs is the patience, the smarts, and the dollars to find the candidate who can do each of these things but is also possessed of the ability to achieve them in cooperation with the City's fine firefighting force. Today's fire chief has constiuencies and responsibilities more widespread than ever, and they will not diminish over time. This chief must provide for the firefighters, provide fire suppression, advocate for apparatus that meets not only today's needs but those that will exist when it is still in service 10 years from now. He must take an active role in community master planning, and be allowed to take it. She must balance the needs for growth with the measures that protect the new lives that growth will bring. He must provide technical rescue capabilities, hazardous material management expertise, emergency medical response, disaster preparedness education, and general life safety education that extends beyond fire safety. Take note: you can find this candidate. The City has shown, through its hiring efforts for chiefs of police, that it can look outisde and seek strong leadership. The bigger question will be whether the City is willing to provide the support to allow such a chief to function and remain sufficiently happy to become a career Wilmington chief. Will a council with ties to development hear and allow an ordinance to increase the prevalence of residential fire sprinkler systems, even over the objections of builders? Will they help the chief seek advanced degrees, accreditation as a chief fire officer, or provide the time to complete the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program? Will they consider educational opportunities to allow firefighters to develop comprehensive and legally defensible incident report writing expertise, or to seek degrees that would foster company management skills? Would they consider advice on restricting the siting of new hazardous materials facilities to prevent their incursion on residence or high-occupancy establishments inthe event of a chemical release? Do they sufficiently value the vital emergency medical services role our fire department plays to fund enhancements to those capabilities if recommended by the new chief? Will they hear the voice of the firefighters when they say whether or not they would fight fire side-by-side with the chief? As the consultant goes forward, Wilmington has the chance to find for itself a fire service leader who takes a more modern approach to managing fire services. It needs to go beyond that, and find a chief who has the vision and preparation to lead Wilmington's Fire Department in the decades of progress ahead. As a final caution, note that the consultant selected to run the applicant vetting process has Wilmington fire service ties. Minimally, the City should insist on a brief description of the rationale for dismissing each candidate who met the minimum requirements for the position, but whose name was not advanced for consideration. Community, step up. Insist on a voice in the candidate selection process for both the firefighters and affected allied professions (EMS, code enforcement, law enforcement, etc.). Thank a firefighter when you meet one, and don't lose your interest once a candidate is selected. There are plenty of places seeking the right chief, and the chief who wants to do right will gladly seek them when they do not receive the appropriate support from the community in which they are employed. There is a saying that the fire service is 200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress. This may accurately describe much of the recent history of our fire department. It is our time to nip the cliche and ensure for our city that we are preparing to protect ourselves with the best candidate for the job. Let your voices be heard.

Have a great life Chief. Wes

Have a great life Chief. Wes Piner, Firefighter/EMT Johnston FD Johnston, Iowa

Retirement

Congratulations Sam on your retirment. Since Wilmington is growing by leaps and bounds, it is time for the City of Wilmington to look outside of it's borders to bring in some fresh perspectives and ideas for upgrading the fire protection program already in place. While there are many great employees within the department, it is a good time to bring in some outside influence and take the department to the next level. While the City Manager has appointed an interim, the selection committee should make the final cuts and suggestions for interviews and selection. The WFD if good and can be better in the coming years. Management, keep your eyes and ears open in this process and listen to what is being and has been said over the last few years. Consolidation also needs to be considered for future growth Make WFD one of the best.

Changing of the Guard.

Will this be a real changing of the guard for our area fire departments?