ORLEANS — With solemn faces, members of the fire and rescue department sat in the rear of the Nauset Room Jan. 22 as the board of selectmen discussed the process of finding a successor to Chief Tony Pike, whose last day before retirement will be Feb. 22. If a new leader isn’t found by then, Deputy Chief Geof Deering, who sat with his colleagues during last week’s meeting, would become acting chief.
The board debated an in-house posting of the job versus appointing a committee and conducting a broader search. The department has a history of promotion from within. According to the CapeCodFD.com website, Chief Ray Merrill was succeeded by Deputy Chief Steve Edwards in 2002. Edwards was followed as chief in 2008 by former acting deputy Bill Quinn, Jr. Former deputy Pike, who joined the department 40 years ago as a call firefighter, succeeded Quinn in 2014.
“The last time we did a search was when Steve Edwards retired,” Town Administrator John Kelly had told the board at its Jan. 15 meeting. “The board decided to go outside and appoint a search committee. That’s how we did it when Bill Quinn was appointed. The board invited in-house and external applications. We did a search of the New England area.”
When the board returned to the question Jan. 22, now in the presence of department personnel, Selectman Mefford Runyon led off by saying that his preference “is always in-house. I wonder that, if we limit ourselves to that, it does justice to the process. I could be talked into either way.”
Citing the “benefit of going through the citizen fire academy,” Selectman Kevin Galligan said that “the current team in the house is strong. I’d be very comfortable putting together a good methodology in terms of interview questions, real-life examples, budget issues. I’m very comfortable with a process from within.”
“As I told one of the firemen yesterday,” Selectman Cecil Newcomb said, “my only concern staying in-house—that’s the way I want to go—is getting another chief that stays three years to get the maximum and retire. We’ve already had four chiefs in not many years. If he’s willing to stick around 10 to 12 years, to me it’s worth it.”
“We’re all local,” Selectman David Currier said. “For the most part, we all want to see a hire from within. We’re elected here to make the best decision for the town. To not at least open it up to me would be disrespectful to the people who voted for me. We should at least hear all the candidates.”
Describing himself as a longtime observer of public safety and school system leadership changes in local towns, Selectman Chairman Mark Mathison said he understood Currier’s point “about doing our due diligence and maybe giving the citizens of the town the notion that we have gone out to get the best person possible, but I also think that one of the things that happens when you go out and get that unknown, you’re dealing with two things. One, it’s an unknown. I’ve seen it turn into a disaster on more than one occasion. Number two, you wind up running at below optimal speed because of the learning curve with the new person. I don’t know if it does a service to our citizens to put them through two to three years of a learning curve, or hoping that an unknown turns out to be something good. I think we have really dedicated and excellent people on board right now.”
Whoever becomes chief will have to lead a department housed in an outdated and overcrowded fire station where firefighter-purchased fitness equipment sits in garage space next to vehicles and their exhaust. Air quality is a serious concern, and a study is under way on that subject. The service has also struggled with finding personnel given housing prices in the area and the requirement that department members live within a certain distance from the station. A long-promised stoplight at the department’s perilous entrance onto busy Eldredge Park Way has been delayed for decades.
Runyon moved to conduct an in-house search for the next chief, noting that “we will still retain the ability, if we’re not satisfied with that approach, to take it further if we want to.” The board agreed unanimously.