Fire Marshal Mike Brown understands that community members are rarely excited to see firefighters show up at their doors.
“Let’s face it,” Brown said. “Our job is to serve the citizens of Clinton at their worst time. The worst day of their life is usually when they invite us to their house.”
Time was, Brown said, that each firefighter’s face was well-known throughout the neighborhoods they served. A return to that sort of familiarity could not only help public relations, Brown said, it could spawn the kind of trust and knowledge that saves lives.
“Let’s try to eliminate some of these (fire) calls,” Brown said. “Let’s be proactive, I guess, instead of reactive.”
Brown should soon have more authority to work toward that goal. At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Committee of the Whole, City Administrator Jeff Horne, who is responsible for appointing the heads of city departments, suggested that Brown succeed retiring Fire Chief Mark Regenwether. If the City Council approves Horne’s recommendation, Brown will officially take the fire department reins next month.
Just the 10th chief the department has had in the past 120 years, Brown said he will have his work cut out for him. His appointment signals an end to the command structure as it had existed, as budgetary concerns called for the reduction of one of the three head positions. With Regenwether’s retirement, no personnel will have to be terminated, but Brown said many of the duties he has performed under the title of Fire Marshal will have to be divvied up among remaining staff.
That redefinition of responsibilities is “job one,” Brown said. Emergency Medical Services and Training Director Andrew McGovern could inherit additional duties, as could each of the department’s three battalion chiefs. Brown himself will retain many of his current duties, in addition to handling the added responsibility of the chief.
“It’s going to be quite a transition,” Brown said. “The previous chief has been here for over 12 years. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience.”
The experience includes five months as interim chief in 2010 and early 2011, after Regenwether was terminated in the wake of an EMS billing scandal. Regenwether was eventually absolved by the Civil Service Commission and reinstated, but Brown believes experiences like that helped give him an edge in the hiring process.
Wrangling a shifting budget will be another of Brown’s early goals.
The department, like the rest of the city, has faced significant financial uncertainty in recent times. Several positions, including a clerical position and a fire inspector position, have disappeared since Brown joined the department 25 years ago.
Most recently, the understaffed department was on the verge of being told that only three of the six vacant firefighter positions could be filled. The cuts, which Brown said could have prevented the department from maintaining a minimum staffing level of 11 per shift, were avoided after council members found other means to make up a general fund deficit.
Once job duties and budgetary concerns are sorted out, Brown hopes to devote time and energy to his main goal. He said he wants his firefighters to get involved with the community and expand opportunities to inform the public.
Rather than putting out fires, Brown wants to make sure citizens have every opportunity to prevent them from starting in the first place.
“We’ll try to incorporate more of a public service approach,” Brown said. “Like a business would.”
An improved public image is something Brown said he has already seen evidence of.
“I think in the last 10 years, our professionalism certainly has risen,” Brown said, adding that it has been done without the help of clerical staff. “We increased the workload and did it with less people.”
Brown was selected from a field of three candidates, including Camanche Fire Chief Dave Schutte and Clinton Fire Department Battalion Chief Joel Atkinson. All three were interviewed by the Civil Service Commission, and members of the City Council’s Internal Operations Committee were invited to sit in.
“It was not a very easy decision,” Horne said. “We had three good candidates.” However, “I’m confident in the choice that I’m recommending.”
The City Council will vote on Horne’s recommendation at its April 10 meeting.