By Lori Richard, Neighb News Correspondent
At a specially-scheduled meeting on 4/6/22, the Acushnet Selectboard interviewed the two top candidates for fire chief in preparation for the retirement of longtime chief Kevin Gallagher in September.
Before beginning, member David Wojnar noted that such an appointment is “once in a generation” in a small town like Acushnet. He thanked Mr. Gallagher for his dedicated service to the town.
“He’s put an incredible amount of time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears into building this department into what it is now, and whoever his successor is will have incredibly big shoes to fill,” said Mr. Wojnar.
Both candidates for the job are Acushnet residents. Eric Arruda and Thomas Farland participated in the hiring process, which included a rigorous test, written answers to questions, and live interviews.
At the meeting, Selectboard members prepared five questions to ask each of the candidates, who were interviewed separately. The questions focused on their interest in the chief position; their personal strengths, challenges, and experiences with the department; their plans for the first 100 days as chief, and their thoughts on the role of fire chief as a manager.
Mr. Arruda, who was interviewed first, described his experience on the job. He has been employed by the town for 20 years, 18 of which he has spent with the fire department.
“I’m a goal-oriented individual, very disciplined, a detail-focused professional when it comes to firefighting,” he said. “One of my main focuses is on quality, making sure things are done well.”
He elaborated by saying that, if hired as chief, he would establish a no-cost mentorship program to define the department’s core values and help employees develop their knowledge, talents, and skills. Such a program would give everyone direction and enable them to transcend the status quo and “go beyond the expectations.”
Mr. Farland spent his first six years with the EMS department, then transitioned to the fire department in 2006, giving him 22 years total with the town. He emphasized his love of learning and his ambition to “take as many classes as the fire academy will let me.”
His education includes degrees and certifications in pre-med/biology, fire science, and fire protection administration.
Regarding their greatest accomplishments, Mr. Arruda pointed to his conception and development in 2016 of the department’s current in-house training program.
“For me personally to be able to see that come to fruition and to see where we are today … is something I’m very proud of,” he said.
Mr. Farland said he was proud to be one of the first three paramedics for Acushnet after the town established its own advanced life support program. He also pointed to an incident nearly 10 years ago when he helped rescue a woman from a second-story room during a house fire. He, along with two other first responders, was able to tackle the fire and save her life successfully.
One of Mr. Arruda’s most challenging situations occurred in 2016 when a family died from carbon monoxide poisoning. While the situation was stressful for the safety personnel and the community, it spurred a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers and raise money for hundreds of carbon monoxide detectors to be installed in local homes. He commended how town departments and boards and residents joined forces to address the problem.
For Mr. Farland, “Every day is a challenge because when you walk in the door you don’t know what you’re going to have that day.”
Anything from a fully-engulfed house to a difficult medical run can come up, and while fire calls are pretty straightforward, he said, “on the ambulance you have to play detective.”
In his first 100 days as chief, Mr. Arruda said he would learn his administrative responsibilities, establish relationships with elected and appointed officials, and conduct a “rapid needs assessment” in order to determine the department’s priorities going forward. At the same time, he would reintroduce the expectations of the department, hold employees and himself accountable, and include staff participation in policy reviews.
“It really helps to create a culture of buy-in and they can see the value in those policies,” he said.
Mr. Farland noted that 100 days is not a lot of time to make sweeping improvements, but he would aim to achieve the goals that Chief Gallagher has already introduced and build a strong rapport with department members.
“The most important part of my first 100 days is going to be getting in touch with all of them and just relaying where we want to go for the future, what my expectations are and how I plan to operate,” said Mr. Farland.
When discussing money, Mr. Arruda mentioned that he would take a “comprehensive look” to see how overtime needs could be addressed in the level-funded budget.
Select Board member Kevin Gaspar wondered if he was concerned with being able to manage personnel to cover shifts while staying within the budget’s limits.
Mr. Arruda explained that, although union contracts have not been settled yet, he would be able to work with the money allocated. He said fire departments typically fill 60 percent of shifts with full-time firefighters and 40 percent with call firefighters and part-time EMTs and paramedics. However, Acushnet currently has an unusually low number of call firefighters on its roster. The goal would be to recruit more call firefighters, but, in most cases, part-timers hold down full-time jobs elsewhere. General staff shortages throughout the pandemic have only exacerbated the problem and have required full-time employees to fill overtime slots.
Budget management for a town department is in some ways similar to running a household budget, Mr. Farland said.
“It can be tough. We want to do so much but we’re restricted,” he said, adding that the fire department has been fortunate to be well-funded over the years. He would prioritize the department’s needs to get “the most impact for the least amount of money.”
Finally, both men discussed their vision for the role of the fire chief as a manager. They mentioned the day-to-day administrative duties, including budget and personnel management, and relationships with the Selectboard, town administrator, and the community as important parts of the job.
Mr. Arruda said the chief is “a leader, a figurehead for the department,” while Mr. Farland emphasized accountability. He said, “A good manager is going to want to make sure that every single one of his employees succeeds.”
The candidates concluded by thanking the selectboard and Chief Gallagher for the opportunity to interview for the position. They agreed that the town will be fortunate, no matter who is hired. “I’m certain myself or the other candidate here today would be a fantastic choice for the town,” said Mr. Arruda.
Mr. Farland echoed him, “No matter the outcome, this department is in really good hands for the next 10, 15 years.”
Editor’s note: Just as we went to press on Tuesday night, we learned that the Select Board chose Mr. Farland to be the next chief.
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