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Q&A: New Ala. fire chief balks at calls to cut EMS service

Fire Chief Tony Grande says keeping fire-based EMS is the best way to save civilian lives

By Eric Fleischauer
The Decatur Daily

DECATUR, Ala. — Decatur Fire and Rescue Chief Tony Grande's first inferno was political, and it started before the City Council voted him into office.

The former Knoxville Fire Department battalion chief hangs his jacket in an office that has been vacant nine months, since former Fire Chief Darwin Clark resigned in the midst of questions about bidding procedures. Grande was selected despite vocal community support for the sole internal candidate, Division Chief Lorenzo Jackson, a 33-year veteran of the department.

Grande's challenges are not just within the department. Tensions have erupted between City Hall and the department about numerous issues, most of them budgetary.

Mayor Don Kyle has proposed closing one of the city's eight fire stations. The city has delayed promotions for numerous firefighters who have met the qualifications for a higher rank. The city has not replaced firefighters who have quit or retired, leading division and battalion chiefs to complain the department is understaffed. In an effort to cut the department's $10 million budget, some council members have called for it to quit responding to medical calls.

On Wednesday, nine days after starting the job, Grande met with The Decatur Daily.

Question: How has your first week as fire chief gone?

Answer: My first week has been very busy. It's a steep learning curve. I have spent my days and many nights learning. That's the basis for everything. A portion of that is learning people. A portion is learning procedure. A portion is learning who you have, what you have and where you have it.

This first week I've really been digging into where we respond, how we respond, why we respond. Even more important than that is the people. You have to learn the people first to know what you have. A fire department is only as good as its people. Firetrucks don't put out fires or help on medical calls. Fire stations don't put out fires or help on medical calls. It's wonderful to have quality equipment and quality facilities, but by far the most important thing is to have quality people.

Q: Do you feel comfortable with your division chiefs and battalion chiefs?

A: The very first day, we had an administrative staff meeting, so everybody that works out here, including my two deputies (division chiefs). I was warmly welcomed. They were very open. We talked a lot. For the first few weeks, it's going to be a lot of talk, an exchange of information to learn about one another. Individually, each of those folks are highly qualified, wonderful to work with. They are given assignments and they are meeting those assignments. Even as we speak they are working hard. Unfortunately, part of their job is to help me along, so they're doing things I'm asking plus helping me along. I have been thrilled with the quality of employee, from the top down to the youngest kids that are working off the back of the truck. I'm thrilled with the quality.

Q: Many firefighters who have met the requirements for a promotion have not been promoted. The mayor said he was holding off until a chief was hired. Do you plan to push for promotions?

A: All the fire departments I've had any involvement with have had points in time where delays happen in the process. I came from a city where there is a delay in the promotional process. That creates a little bit of anxiety amongst those that are on those lists. I understand how those guys feel. I've been dealing with that where I came from. That being said, I still am swimming in the deep end. I'm treading water in the deep end working toward the shallow end. Every time I've met them I've said, "I understand your concern. I know you're anxious about it. Give me a little while to get my feet wet, to figure out where we are going." They have voiced their concern to me and I completely understand it. I have to build my database of information for me to make the right decision for when those things are going to happen and how they are going to happen.

Q: Firefighters have expressed frustration that their leadership has not effectively advocated for department needs. Do you see yourself as an advocate for the department?

A: I think as a fire chief your role is to be a mediator between the council and the employee groups. Having spent nine months in a quandary (over who will be chief) allows employees to get worried and to wonder and to be concerned. As the newly appointed fire chief, one of the things I have to do is to evaluate the relationship and begin to mediate between the two parties and see if I can create in both sides the necessary feelings of trust, and to bring those two parties as close back together as we can. That's what a fire chief does is makes hard decisions about hard things for the benefit of the community and for the benefit of the employee. It's that balance between the benefit of the employee and the benefit of the community that makes it hard sometimes.

Q: Do you have an advocacy role, too?

A: I don't see a huge difference between mediator and advocate. I will advocate. That's a given. I will advocate because I've been so impressed by what I've seen here. Having an outside perspective -- having been around lots of fire departments -- I'm extremely impressed. Absolutely and certainly I will advocate. At the same time that I advocate and present the department in a positive light, the city has requirements that we have to meet. That's when I get to the mediation, to try to educate and balance and bring everybody to an agreement about how and where we are going.

Q: Have you begun to get any budgetary pressure from city leaders?

A: The position comes with budgetary pressures. You don't have to add any, it's already present. Part of my learning process is determining where we are over and where we are under, do we need to shift money from one budget line to another, how those things happen. There's only so much effect a new fire chief can have on a budget when a budget year ends Sept. 30 and here we are in July. I only have one quarter's worth of impact. That being said, that one quarter is a learning opportunity for me.

One of the first things I did with my deputy chiefs is we sat down and went line by line looking at numbers and saying, 'Why is this number this way?' If you have an account that has nearly zero taken out of it versus an account that is at 110 percent of what it should be. We're looking at it. We're learning together. They're teaching me a little bit, but we are sitting down and looking at those numbers hard to see where are our areas of opportunity to get us back on line and to get our budget to more accurately reflect what we're doing.

Q: Have city leaders engaged you in the fiscal 2015 budget process?

A: Mayor Kyle was very kind. He took me around and spent a whole half day with me to talk about the things about Decatur that he loves and that he would like to see. I asked lots of questions so that I can glean as much information as possible. Nobody's called me up and said, "Hey, line item X is this much over. You need to do something about that." They don't need to do that.

There's no need for the mayor and council to push too hard on being on budget, because if you're going to run an organization and you have X number of dollars, you need to be on budget. It's just that simple. Nobody has to come ring your bell and say, "You're close to being over," in order to get your attention. It already had my attention from the first time we sat down and looked at it line by line. We're addressing it as we move forward.

Hopefully in the next few weeks we'll have a meeting and be able, as a department, to gather up our priorities for next (fiscal) year. We'll make our presentation at the appropriate time. Then we'll let the council do what the council does. They can ask their questions, they will put the money where they want to put the money, and they'll take away the money from where they want to take the money. And we'll adapt and change and do what we have to do.

Q: Some council members have questioned whether Decatur Fire and Rescue should respond to medical calls. Do you see these calls as an important part of the department's mission?

A: The majority of emergency services delivered anymore is medical-related. A fire service that's providing a community both fire suppression and emergency medical service, you're doing 60-40 or 70-30 percentage-wise with most being medical, including vehicle wrecks and that sort of thing.

The old adage in (emergency medical services) is the brain starts to die when it lacks oxygen for four to six minutes. Looking at response times and the way we put people in position, we're very good at meeting that timeline. One of our crews (since I took office) actually responded to a cardiac arrest where they got a pulse back on their patient. That's due in part to a quick response by our folks to get there and begin definitive medical care with defibrillators and monitors and drugs and those things. The other component is the team approach, to work together when the ambulance shows up for the best of that patient, transport him to a facility and get him the care at the hospital that he needs and deserves. I came from an organization that was very proactive in EMS delivery. I think what we are doing here is in the best interest of the community.

Q: Some council members have said they would like to see a budgetary shift involving ending or limiting response to medical calls. Would you push back against that?

A: No one has mentioned that to me. I go back to that four-to-six minute response time. I think the community understands and deserves to have the best support possible medically. We'll present what we think is the right path and what we think is the right budget and the right way to do business, and hopefully we'll get the support of the council and mayor. But ultimately, they do have a fiduciary responsibility that they have to deal with. Given the budget we get, we'll do what we need to do to make it work.

Q: Decatur Fire and Rescue once had 126 employees. Now it is down to 108. Do you see a need to increase staffing?

A: I'm pretty deep in the assessment process. I can't give a firm opinion on that. We are looking at call volumes and run loads and responses. The staffing of the fire department is going to be a major concern for any fire chief. If I called all my fire chief friends, I'm sure they'd all say they would love to have more personnel. We know what we would love to have, but we will always have to work within that budget. I'll have to advocate and, as necessary, mediate and come to an agreement about how we're going to do business. I'm waiting on information on response times and other things, but it comes back to that four-to-six minutes. We use the four-to-six minutes medically, but fire and hazardous materials and all those things are time-dependent. The old adage was fire doubles in size and in speed in a minute. Unfortunately that adage probably is a little behind the curve, because of the way buildings are constructed and the way furniture is made, the increased use of plastics and foams, so what used to be a nice, gentle acceleration curve is now a steeper acceleration curve as it relates to fire. Fires get hotter, faster than they ever did. That pushes back your time, your envelope when you can get in there and make a difference. Once the fire gets to a certain level, anyone that was a viable survivor of that fire at some point may no longer be viable. The steeper curve creates the need to be there in a shorter time, with a significant enough crew to begin to do the work we need to do to prevent injury. Staffing is always going to be an issue for every fire chief and every fire department. We'd always love to have more, but we always will do what we have to do given the budget that we have.

Q: Due to staffing levels, some trucks are being run with fewer than four firefighters. Is this a problem?

A: The National Fire Protection Association has a standard. It's a standard a lot of folks use. Knowing that, if you assign four folks to a fire engine, with a minimum staffing of three, it's obvious to anyone that on a day when all four are there, when they arrive at an event -- whether it's medical or fire or (hazardous materials) -- four folks will get more done than three folks. The question is how much we can do with the staffing that we have. NFPA also has a standard on how many people should be at the scene of a working structure fire. I'm still in the learning process to figure out where we are on that. Every fire chief I've ever met would love to always have four people on the truck, because you'll work faster and you'll work safer, but sometimes those trucks will run with minimum staffing. We just have to ensure that when we're at that minimum level, that whatever the event is, that we have enough people there to mitigate it in a timely manner. That comes from our managers, whether it's the battalion chiefs or the deputy chiefs or the fire chief, it come from the managers making sure we have enough people on the scene to provide the community with the service they deserve.

Q: Have you had a chance to evaluate the department's haz-mat preparedness?

A: Looking at our haz-mat preparedness is one of my 'get-to' items. One of the more challenging things was to drive up and down the river and to visit some of those industries and see what's out there. Our job is to make sure we have some plans in place. If we need more haz-mat help, where do we get it from and how do we get it here? I've already heard that we maybe occasionally call Huntsville to help us with hazmat. If you're a smaller community, you rely on your big-brother community occasionally to give you some help. Those are the kinds of things I'm still assessing. I'm looking at what kind of agreements Alabama has, what kind of agreements the city has where we can do what they call mutual aid or shared aid across political boundaries.

Q: Division Vhief Lorenzo Jackson applied for your position, and many in the community felt he should have gotten it. Are you comfortable working with him?

A: Chief Jackson is a wonderful man. I walked in the first day and he was warm and welcoming. We have had several meetings. I meet with both of the deputies together, because I feel that's the beginning of our leadership team. We have to have some common goals and some common work ethics and strategies to make the department better. Not that it's bad now, but we need to look forward to improve. Chief Jackson and Chief (Janice) Johnson are superb folks. They have been very welcoming. They have been very busy. They've been given some stuff, and they're just clicking away and working to complete those assignments. I would say, not just with Chief Jackson but also with Chief Johnson, and all the battalion chiefs and all those that carry more bugles, they have been wonderful. They have all been wonderful, including Chief Jackson.

Q: The mayor has suggested he would like to close Station 4, in Northwest Decatur. The division chiefs said closing it would be a mistake. What are your thoughts?

A: A battalion chief yesterday took me by Station 4. It's a nice facility. We're still in the assessment phase, looking at maps and response times. Nobody's mentioned anything to me about it yet. I'm sure it will come at some time in the future. When it comes, we'll address it. No firefighter wants to think about closing a fire station. That's understandable, because they generally are very in touch with the communities they serve. In the place where I came from, closing a fire station was a community-involved issue. That being said, I don't know whether or not it's the right thing to do yet. We're still in the assessment phase. No one has made any comment to me or request of me. It's just part of the overall picture of the city of Decatur for me. Where are we heavy and where are we light? Where do we do good and where do we need improvement?

Q: Most likely you will be asked to reduce your budget for fiscal 2015. Recognizing you are still learning about Decatur Fire's operations, is there low-hanging fruit where departments can find savings without affecting community safety?

A: I came from Knoxville and had the opportunity to sit with our fire chief, Chief Sharp, and go through their budget. They had to come up with a plan in the budget for a cut. They presented a standard budget and also a budget plan with a percentage amount cut. Chief Sharp made it very clear that it would probably require the closing of a fire hall and the not hiring or laying off of folks. That's what his plan was in Knoxville. Here, I have no plan yet. We're working to assess, to make a good, valid, strong presentation at budget time. But you make your presentation. The council votes. The budget gets approved, and you work with what you've been given. I can guarantee we'll work with whatever we are given. We'll do the very best we can with whatever we are given. We'll have open budget discussions. I'm an advocate for the department, and I'm the mediator between the council and the department. There is a fiduciary responsibility on every fire chief in this nation to do the most with the least. You have to be very diligent about how you spend money, where you spend money and why you spend money. Here, I've not been given any requirements. They're allowing me to do an assessment and to give them an honest opinion. I'll do that.

Q: Does the Knoxville Fire Department have a boat?

A: Knoxville Fire Department has some water capabilities, yes. They have a large boat they use and then they have a smaller, outboard Zodiac. They have at least those two boats. The Tennessee River runs through Knoxville. They're used for events on the river. An example is Labor Day's Boomsday. On Boomsday there will be thousands of boats in Knoxville on the river to watch the fireworks display. They'll deploy that boat to deploy fire suppression and medical services, just in case someone on those boats has an issue. They have a boat to provide that kind of service for those events. They use the smaller boat if there's a jumper off one of the two bridges, because they can get it out there a little bit quicker. They had that capability.

Q: The City Council recently authorized the Police Department to apply for a federal grant for a boat that would be shared with the Fire Department and that would have hazmat capabilities. Do you see this as beneficial to the Fire Department?

A: As a community grows, there may be justification for bringing in new equipment that will help the department as a whole. Is there a use for a marine response -- whether it be law enforcement or emergency management agency or county rescue squad -- in a community that lies on the river? I would say yes, there probably is. I'm not clear yet on what capabilities we already have in this community.

Q: Have you begun looking for a house to buy?

A: We are renting. We are looking for our house in Decatur. My wife is home packing boxes and cleaning the house and prepping it for sale. My wife advocated for me this morning when I spoke with her. I said, 'Honey, I know you're going to be busy today, and I'm sorry.' And she said, 'Honey, I know you're going to be busy today, and I'm sorry.' She actually said, 'Don't forget your appointment this morning. You got an email on it.' I said, 'Yes dear.' She is my advocate. She looks out for me. She's my greatest supporter.

We have an apartment here locally, and we'll soon be shopping for a house inside the city limits of Decatur. She has spent some time online reviewing the opportunities. She has been very diligent in trying to find out where her new home will be.

Q: What are your initial thoughts about Decatur as your new home?

A: My first impression of Decatur, coming over the bridge, is it reminded me so much of Baton Rouge. That was my wife's first impression, too. We both just smile and chuckle, because it brings back memories and heartstrings from our time before I was in the military, when we were in college and had just met. Outside of that first impression, I've been impressed with the warmth and the welcomeness of the community. I've gotten many phone calls saying, 'Glad you're here. Come and see us.' Both from industry and city leaders and county leaders and such. Decatur is a wonderful place to be. Michelle and I have no qualms about coming here. We're looking forward to going to the downtown area for some of those summer events that they're doing. The downtown reminds us of Knoxville, because they have a revitalization project in their downtown going on, called Market Square in the Old City. We drove through Decatur's downtown and I thought it was a start, a beginning with great potential.

Q: Your resume indicated you have been active in your church. Are you looking at churches here?

A: There's a huge faith component for any man who has been married as long as I have. It's great to have a faith component you can fall back on. I feel very blessed to be where I am and to be married to who I am married to. My wife made the comment that everyone we have met has at some point or other invited us to their church, and almost all of them have been different churches. Whether I get to visit all of them I don't know, because already there are about 15 or 16 folks that have invited me, and I'll try to make it. But oh my goodness, it's a lot of churches to go see. Next week I'll have the opportunity to visit with a senior's group at one of our local churches that invited me to come and have lunch with them and share a few words with them. I think that will probably qualify as my first church visit right there.

Q: Is there anything you would like to communicate to our readers?

A: One, we love the community. Two, everyone in this community can be confident in this: I am so thoroughly impressed with the quality of employees this city has hired into the fire department. I'm thoroughly impressed with the dedication to duty and to be faithful learners of their jobs, of their desire not just to be participants but to be leaders in their fields. That has impressed me here. There is a great group of employees here who are going to deliver the very best, highest quality service they can. They are just really high-quality people.


(c)2014 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

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