Search for new fire chief still in early stages

Published 6:11 am Thursday, November 19, 2009

The city of Austin will soon be in need of a new leader for its fire department, though when and how that will be done is still unclear.

Current chief Dan Wilson, who has been the subject of an internal investigation in recent weeks regarding allegations that he has fostered a “hostile” work environment at the station, announced recently that he’d be retiring Dec. 31.

Though Wilson said his announcement had nothing to do with the investigation — in fact, he said he’d been planning his retirement for several months — the city is nonetheless faced with the task of filling the position.

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Several city leaders have said this process is in its very early stages and that no candidates have been identified.

In fact, city administrator Jim Hurm said there could be some time after Wilson’s retirement where the department goes with an interim chief or no chief at all because the city wants to take the time to get a final selection right.

Right now, Hurm said the city is revising the chief job description and getting search materials ready.

From there, the Austin Fire Civil Service Commission will handle interviews and finalize a list of recommended candidates.

City council then ultimately approves a new chief.

But to get from here to there will take some time.

“There’s lots to fill in here,” Hurm said.

Whether the next chief is an internal hire or someone from the outside is also up in the air, but Hurm and Mayor Tom Stiehm both said it’d be wise to consider any and all candidates.

While Stiehm said he wouldn’t discount a local candidate, he did acknowledge that an outside hire could be a good fit given all the turmoil at the station, which includes at least one complaint filed by a firefighter against Wilson.

“You have to keep an open mind,” the mayor said of the hiring process.

One other possibility used by some cities, such as Mankato, is to create an umbrella public safety department comprised of police and fire departments.

In Mankato, a director of public safety works with two public safety deputy directors — one for police, one for fire — to keep citizens safe.

Austin police chief Paul Philipp, who could become the local public safety director if the city went that way, said people in Mankato have been happy with such a system but noted that he had his “reservations” about it.

He said the idea hasn’t really gained much traction locally, to his knowledge, but said the decision ultimately rests with policy makers.

Chris Grunewald, an Austin firefighter and president of the staff’s local union, said he thinks a fire station is best served by having a chief because it preserves the department’s “identity.”

Grunewald also said it’s always nice for local workers to have the chance to move up the chain, but he’d welcome an outside hire as well.

“It will be a learning process,” he said. “Anyone new will have different ideas.”

The firefighter added that he was unaware of any potential internal candidates.

Hurm and Stiehm said they likely won’t contact Wilson during the decision-making process, and Wilson also said he’d likely try not to get involved.

Though he’s been chief since 1993 and knows the department well, Wilson said the decision rests with city council, not him.

“I don’t know what the council’s plan is for the future of the fire department,” he said.