Fire chief candidate drops out, another added

Published 7:24 am Wednesday, May 5, 2010

With one of three finalists for Austin’s fire chief opening recently pulling his name from the running, the city now has a new candidate.

And he’s very aptly named.

Bill Austin, a 38-year-old firefighter from Cicero, Ill., was certified Tuesday by the Austin Fire Civil Service Commission as a finalist for the job. He joins Michael Healey, a 17-year veteran who currently works as a firefighter in Portage, Mich., and Jarrod Wellik, an assistant fire chief in Stewartville, Minn., who has been in the fire service for roughly 20 years.

Pulling his name from contention was Edward Schwaesdall, who is currently a division chief with the Campbell County Fire Department in Wyoming. City human resources director Tricia Wiechmann said Schwaesdall did not provide a specific reason, other than noting he was no longer interested.

That decision — and the fact that civil service rules require three finalists — meant Austin, who said he had kind of forgotten about his application with the city, was in for a surprise.

“It was definitely a surprising phone call,” Austin said of being notified of his status change, “but definitely a pleasant surprise.”

Austin said he is a third-generation firefighter, following immediately in his father’s footsteps and other family members before that.

“You could say it’s in my blood,” he added.

Growing up in Bolingbrook, Ill., which is outside of Chicago and not far from where he works now, Austin said he’d spend time at the fire station with his father and he knew he wanted to do the same job. Twenty-one years later, the younger Austin is still doing something he loves.

“The biggest thing (I enjoy) is just helping people,” he said. “That’s the biggest fulfillment I get out of it.”

The Cicero Fire Department Austin works for employs all full-time firefighters, which is not the case in Austin. However, the candidate said he has experience working with part-time firefighters at other places and said he’d focus on building cohesiveness between the two groups in Austin.

“They’re there to do the same thing,” Austin said.

Austin also said he was aware of some of the controversies at the department in the last year, including a protracted contract dispute and a city investigation into former chief Dan Wilson that was eventually dropped. The candidate said fire departments across the country go through similar issues, and he noticed a local station that has the right makeup to move forward.

“It’s a great bunch of guys that work (in Austin),” he said. “They’re looking for someone to come in and provide leadership.”

Austin, of course, hopes to be that someone. If he was tabbed, Austin would be heading west with a wife of 14 years, and a son and a daughter, ages 3 and 5 respectively. He said he’s usually kept very busy by this crew, but he likes to get outside and do some boating when he can.

Austin also said his namesake city, though smaller than the Chicago-area he lives in now, would be a good fit. In fact, he likened Austin to the Bolingbrook of his childhood.

“It brings back where I grew up,” Austin said. “My wife is excited about (the potential move). It’s obviously a challenge moving out of a state, but it could be a breath of fresh air.”

Chief hiring process bumped back

Because of the developments, the fire chief selection process will take longer than expected.

The city originally planned on doing final interviews Monday, with a decision coming not long after and a new chief possibly being in place by early June. Now, interviews have been bumped back to an indefinite date and it looks as if mid-June to July is a more realistic goal for having someone new start, Wiechmann said.

The extra time will allow the city to do a background check on Austin — which was done earlier with the other candidates — and to plan the interviews for the same day.