Speculation mounts over who will be next chief
Charleston's next fire chief, expected to be announced later this month, is likely to hail from the Southeast and might already lead a fire department in a major American city.
Those are among the characteristics emerging as city officials and an executive recruiting firm whittle down a list of 140 applicants seeking to succeed former Fire Chief Rusty Thomas. He retired in June following a scathing analysis of his department's handling of the Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine area firefighters last year.
The pool of hopefuls has been pared to 14. That slate will shrink to a half-dozen or fewer in the coming weeks as candidates visit Charleston for final interviews and possibly for meetings with firefighters, City Council members and other stakeholders.
Jerry Oldani, the recruiting firm's senior vice president, said the majority of candidates on the short list already lead fire departments, including some in major cities larger than Charleston. Five states - Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland - accounted for the largest number of applicants.
Oldani, whose firm has headed similar nationwide searches, said the Charleston Fire Department is in line to get a top-notch, highly qualified new boss.
'I would say it's the best overall pool I've seen in some time.'
One fire service commentator said the new chief already should be a seasoned leader with executive experience and a proven record of uniting diverse factions within a fractured fire department such as Charleston's.
'If the new chief hasn't already done this somewhere else before, then Charleston should absolutely not be the new chief's on-the-job training ground,' said Billy Goldfeder, a deputy chief in Ohio and a columnist for Firehouse.com.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has said the national search remains on schedule to produce a new chief by the end of this month. It is unclear how soon the person would take the reins after the decision is announced.
But while the search time line remains on track, the slowly unfolding - and apparently leak-proof - process is proving to be a nail-biter inside the city's fire stations.
Many firefighters are anxious for a permanent leader to assume the helm and chart a definitive course for the department, Fire Capt. Jamie Greene said.
'We need to get the old out. Period,' he said.
Brian Conley, acting president of the local firefighters union that represents most of the city's firefighters, said the search has yielded plenty of rumors but remarkably little in the way of specifics.
'They've been keeping it pretty hush-hush.'
The lack of information has generated uncertainty inside a department still reeling from the deadly June 18, 2007, fire and the sweeping operational overhaul that followed. Firefighters are filling the void with rumors, Conley said.
'There is a lot of anxiety because we don't know what we are going to get. The fire house is worse than a soap opera. It's like a bunch of old hens,' he said.
Gordon Routley, who heads the expert consulting panel that recommended many of the changes, said the job presents a unique opportunity to reshape a historic fire department and that the city administration and firefighters seem poised to support the incoming chief.
Yet lingering emotions from the tragedy and the myriad decisions awaiting the new chief will bring added pressure and scrutiny, said Routley, who hopes to serve on the city's final selection committee.
'The most positive thing is the mayor appears committed to bringing someone in to make positive changes. It's risky because the consequences of missing are not good,' he said.
Some people who were rumored to be candidates appear to be out of the running.
Brian Crawford, who was part of the six-member consulting panel that studied the sofa store blaze, was named in July to lead the Shreveport (La.) Fire Department, where he previously served as assistant chief.
Another possible candidate, Greg Cade, told The Post and Courier last month that he would love to become Charleston's next fire chief but had not applied because he wants to complete his tenure as head of the U.S. Fire Administration. Cade has close ties to Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen. The two worked together in Virginia Beach, Va., where Cade served as that city's fire chief and Mullen as its deputy police chief.
Janet Wilmoth, editorial director for Fire Chief magazine, said a recent fire chiefs' association conference in Denver was abuzz with talk of Charleston's search for a new chief.
The resume of the Fire Department's next leader should brim with experience, knowledge of the latest tactics and techniques and a record of results, Wilmoth said. The choice needs to come sooner than later to motivate the troops and keep the momentum going, she said.
Some firefighters are concerned that improvements in the department have stalled under Interim Fire Chief Ronnie Classen, who plans to retire when a new chief arrives. He is seen by many firefighters as a holdover from Thomas' old guard.
'He's just keeping the status quo,' Reggie Barnes, a 27-year veteran of the department and secretary of the local firefighters' union, said.
Mark Ruppel, the Fire Department's public information officer, said Classen was never expected to make dramatic changes. His mission is to keep the department's day-to-day operations running until a new chief arrives, Ruppel said.
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