Deputy fire chief Mitchell responds to town | Inquirer and Mirror

2022-07-22 16:08:18 By : Ms. Erin Xie

This letter was sent to the Town of Nantucket’s Fire Chief Search Committee as well as the Select Board and the Nantucket firefighters union local Thursday, prior to a meeting between Nantucket deputy fire chief Sean Mitchell and the committee. The letter was shared with The Inquirer and Mirror by members of the fire union. The search committee consists of town manager Libby Gibson, human resources director Amanda Perry and call firefighter Neil Paterson.

On Friday July 15, 2022, you sent me a text message requesting that I meet with you and  Human Resources Director Amanda Perry that morning. I was unable to meet that morning and  I requested to meet in the afternoon, or on Monday July 18 th . A meeting was set for July 18 th at  8:00 AM. On Sunday July 17 th, you sent me a text message which said that we no longer needed  to meet, and you instead sent me an email. Attached to the email was a memo listing what you  have since referred to as my “deficiencies” related to my elimination from the Fire Chief search  process. The memo also required me to accept a salary, in writing, prior to being granted a second interview. The last sentence in the memo states, “in order to move forward, acceptance  of the advertised salary is necessary.” I accepted the salary. 

As stated, the purpose of the second interview is to provide me with an opportunity to “address  the identified deficiencies noted in the attached letter”. I would like it to be noted that at no  time did I request a second interview. It should also be noted that your memo was the first time  anyone notified me of the reasons I was not advanced to the second round of the process. It  has since come to my attention, from people close to Town Administration, as well as from your  quotes in today’s Inquirer & Mirror, that the process is still narrowed down to two finalists. I am  not a finalist, and as I have been told, I will not be reconsidered for the position despite this  bizarre offer to interview me again. Rather than subject myself to an interview that seems  arranged solely to appease the public, I will instead answer your memo in writing below. I’m  happy to answer any follow up questions during our scheduled 4:00 PM meeting today, if you  think a meeting is still warranted. 

First, I will address a concern you have mentioned in numerous emails this week relating to a letter from the Local 2509 Union President supporting my appointment as Fire Chief. The letter  referred to me as a “certified Chief Officer through the National Fire Academy.”.\ You have since  requested documentation that confirms this certification. I would like to note that I did not  write that letter from the Union President, nor did I proofread or edit the letter. I read it at the  same time as everyone else who received it.  

To the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as a certified Chief Officer through the  National Fire Academy. If there is, I certainly am not one. There is however an Executive Fire  Officer (EFO) Program at the National Fire Academy. There is also a Chief Fire Officer (CFO)  credential through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, a Fire Chief Credential (FCC) from  the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, and a Chief Fire Officer Management Program  at the Massachusetts Fire Academy (MFA) (commonly referred to as the CFO course). I  graduated from the MFA program in January 2022. That information is found on my resume,  and I’m happy to provide documentation in support. I have never referred to myself as a “CFO,” nor have I ever added it to my email signature or any other document. I imagine the confusion  lies in the fact that most firefighters have no idea what any of those courses/credentials mean,  or how they are obtained, because they are not important to them. The reason for that is  simple: they are meaningless. It is my opinion that the people who are concerned about who is, and who is not, a “CFO” are the same people who are more concerned with what resumes say  than they are with proof of actual leadership qualities. I imagine that the Union President asked  me about the CFO designation, and I told him I graduated from the CFO course at the Academy. I did not feel the need to research and explain the many different acronyms and how they are  obtained, because they do not matter to me. I believe that true leadership and respect are not  derived from credentials listed on email signatures. 

With that said, I have, in fact, obtained the required credits to apply for the Massachusetts Fire  Chief Credential, I simply have not submitted the application yet, because I’m too busy doing  my job as Deputy Chief, as well as my previous job as FPO, and the Chief’s job in his absence. It  has also been made clear to me by Town Administration and Human Resources that the  Nantucket Fire Chief, and the Deputy Fire Chief, will not be compensated for education and/or  certifications, unlike other Nantucket public safety officials, so I am in no rush to complete this  application. If this is an attempt by you, or anyone else, to claim that I have misrepresented my credentials, I suggest you try another avenue to publicly embarrass me.  

Since the Nantucket Fire Department has no requirement for a fire officer to be on duty at all  times (example, if the shift captain is out, the department has no obligation to fill that officer’s  shift with another officer), every Nantucket firefighter, no matter their level of experience, is  eventually thrust into the decision-making role of being the command officer. Every medical  call, fire alarm, carbon monoxide leak, propane incident, structure fire, brush fire, etc. requires  that someone be in command. I have been in that role many times during my 16-year career. In  2016, I was promoted to the rank of Captain as the Fire Prevention Officer, which required me  to take a formal leadership role in the fire department. In July 2021, I was selected as the  Deputy Fire Chief, which requires me to be in command of nearly every call to which I respond.  

Additionally, nearly every emergency to which I respond does not have adequate manpower or  equipment, yet we are still able to successfully mitigate the emergency. Nowhere was this more  evident than the July 9, 2022 Veranda House fire. There is no book, no course, no amount of  outside experience to handle an emergency like that on an island like Nantucket. The Nantucket  Fire Department essentially wrote the book that day, and I have heard from a significant  number of firefighters from other Massachusetts departments, that they cannot believe what  we accomplished on July 9th.

See my resume and work history with the Nantucket Fire Department. 

I have written two Standard Operating Guidelines for the Nantucket Fire Department, related to addressing the industry-wide firefighter cancer scourge. Additionally, I am  responsible for obtaining two new sets of low-PFAS turnout gear for every Nantucket  firefighter, per Town Administration’s instruction after our Union’s request. We are now  in the process of distributing new low-PFAS gear to our call firefighters. We have also  addressed the way we store, clean, and wear our gear. We have implemented gross decontamination procedures following exposure to toxic environments, in an effort to  keep our firefighters healthy. As you are aware, the Nantucket Fire Department has  become a national leader in the fight against firefighter occupational cancer, thanks to  my leadership. The availability of low-PFAS gear only came about after I, and Firefighter  Jason Burns (Fall River, MA, current PFFM 8 th District Vice President), brought forward a  resolution to the 55 th IAFF Convention. After we lobbied the IAFF and worked with IAFF  General President Ed Kelly, our resolution was adopted with nearly 100% of the vote.  This was a moment that changed the direction of the IAFF in regard to placing firefighter  health & safety as a top priority of the organization.  

Due to the severe staffing shortage at the Nantucket Fire Department, in January 2022, I  began planning a call firefighter academy in conjunction with the Massachusetts  Firefighting Academy. In what will be a first of its kind – the Nantucket Fire Department  will offer a hybrid academy to our call firefighters which, upon completion, will result in call firefighters holding the Firefighter I/II certification - without the need to travel from  the island. This will also allow our full-time personnel to lead training exercises for the  call firefighters, thereby increasing engagement and collaboration with the call  members. In order to train more full-time personnel to be academy instructors, I have  been in contact with the lead instructor of the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy – Fire Instructor program, to discuss offering the course on island. This course has not  been offered here in my career, and yet is a prerequisite to promotion. It is a required certification for firefighters to be able to instruct academy courses we will be able to  bring to Nantucket. The lead instructor has already visited our station and has  determined that our classroom is an appropriate venue for the course. The call firefighter academy will begin in November 2022, and at the moment we have at least  10 interested candidates. Once we are advised of the number of students allowed, we will interview additional applicants who have stated a desire to join the call department,  many of them recruited by me personally. This means that by next summer our call  ranks will go from zero trained firefighters to 15-20, thanks to my leadership and  commitment to growing the ranks of this department. The goal is to build the call  department into a well-trained group that will eventually work alongside our full-time  members. They will be trained to drive, pump, and do everything our members do, so  that they may also cover assignments for the already overworked and understaffed  shifts. My hope is that some of them, all of whom are already living on Nantucket, will  then choose to join the Nantucket Fire Department as full-time staff members.  

We have a severe lack of personnel to adequately handle the job we are expected to do.  For example, if there were a large brush fire tomorrow, we may not have enough personnel to effectively contain the fire. However, Nantucket is home to qualified  wildland firefighters who are often called to respond to wildfires across the country.  Although there is an MOU in place with the Nantucket Land Bank, NFD rarely trains or  communicates with their staff regarding wildland fire response. I would like to hire  these trained and qualified community members to join our call department as special  wildland firefighters. They would assist us with training, and wildland vehicle and  equipment maintenance. While this would require a change in attitude of NFD  leadership and a willingness to honestly assess our current capabilities, I am confident  that this idea would be well received if presented in the proper way. The concept of  burnout is very real, living on an island, and I believe that working with the current  department staff to alleviate that burnout in creative ways, will be acceptable to all. 

Similar to the upcoming Call Firefighter Academy, I began discussing the feasibility of  offering an EMT-Basic course on island, thereby allowing interested community  members to become certified without being forced to travel and spend thousands of  dollars on the course. We need firefighter/EMT’s, but we also need people who might  just want to be an EMT. When we respond to a fire, we often lose firefighting staff to  ambulance duty, thanks to a lack of EMT personnel. At the recent Veranda House fire,  we had 4 firefighters transported to the hospital from the scene. This meant that each  time one firefighter was transported, we had to send 2-3 more for driving and patient  care, not to mention the care each FF received from our own EMTs on scene. Frankly,  it’s a miracle lives were not lost. Adding EMS staff (seasonally or year-round) would help  to lessen the burden our full-time firefighters face every day and help to free them up  for priority calls. Just as the hospital and police departments increase their staff  seasonally to adjust to the drastic increase in Nantucket’s population, so should the  Nantucket Fire Department. I call this the Community Safety Officer (CSO) program. 

As you know, the Nantucket Fire Department responds to an incredibly high number of  false fire alarms. In 2020, of the 1,792 fire-related calls for service, 1,509 were fire  alarms (84%). And 2020 was not an anomaly – this is a chronic issue. Despite our best  efforts, we simply do not have enough staff to effectively address the issue. NFD should  be permitted to engage with a consultant to assist us in creating systems with which we  can control this chronic, time consuming, and expensive issue. Reducing false alarms will  drastically cut down on overtime costs associated with unnecessary responses by full  time staff, not to mention increase the availability they will have to respond to more  pressing calls. Engaging a consultant would allow us to dig deeper into the issues,  identify repeat issues with certain properties or even alarm companies, & offer the  Town the opportunity to initiate and execute a fee system for these false alarm calls,  that likely could offset the expense incurred by full time staff responding to them in  excess. 

I pushed this issue while I was a member of the Local 2509 Bargaining Team. As I’ve  already stated, NFD currently has no requirement that officers (shift captains) be on duty. If a shift captain is absent, the next senior firefighter is the Officer in Charge - that could be a 20-year firefighter or a 4- year firefighter depending on the day. Adding 4  more officers to the ranks as lieutenants means that firefighters who have  demonstrated a desire to lead will always be on duty, which will increase safety for the  community and in turn decrease the potential for liability for the Town.  

The current plan is practically non-existent and unsafe. The answer is to train active firefighters who have demonstrated mechanical ability (there are many) and to train  them to perform preventive maintenance as well as emergency repairs as needed, as is  done elsewhere. The mechanic we currently bring over from the Cape not only performs  work on our trucks, but also on many other trucks on the Cape and he is an active full time firefighter. Another possibility would be to share a mechanic with the airport fire  department, thereby increasing the salary to be competitive with the private sector.  This is a priority, yet to date there has been no action. In today’s Inquirer & Mirror, you  cited “supply chain” issues as a reason our trucks are in such disrepair, which is an inaccurate statement. Chief Murphy attempted to add a mechanic in 2020, but it was  rejected by Town administration. Unless we have mechanics stuck in a shipping  container off the coast, supply chain issues are not the problem. We can get the parts; we just don’t have the people.

As you are aware, NFD currently has no reliable operational plan in place to respond to  major emergencies on the island of Tuckernuck. While Town administration may not see  a need for a fireboat, I think it is only right to assume that an island, that is also  responsible for the safety of two other islands, would have a means of reaching said  islands, without relying on whomever might be available to give us a ride. On my last  visit to Tuckernuck, to conduct a fire prevention presentation, we were forced to set up  a ride with a private citizen – a quirky scene reminiscent of the 1950’s, but far from  what should be happening in 2022. The simple answer would be to allow firefighters to  use town-owned vessels, as some of them are licensed boat captains. This would also  ensure fast, reliable response to Coatue, and any other areas where access by land is  either impossible or time consuming. 

I have experience applying for, being awarded, and administering grants, as I stated in my  interview. I have also worked with Chief Murphy during my time as Deputy Chief to learn  the systems used by the Town of Nantucket. Additionally, I have spent my career building  

relationships with other TON department heads. I’ve been told that they often work  together when creating budgets to share needs and reduce duplication. I also understand that many current department heads were given the opportunity to work with the town  Finance Department to learn the most efficient and productive ways to both create and  control their departmental budgets. I imagine that any new Fire Chief will require this type  of training, regardless of their experience with budgeting in other towns. The dynamics  necessary to understand the roles of the Finance Department, the Select Board & the importance of Town Meeting is a unique situation which might take some getting used to by  any qualified applicant to this role. 

I have been a member of the Local 2509 Collective Bargaining Team a few times during my  career. This has given me a unique perspective on how to work with the Union to find  common ground. The current system is broken. There is rarely any negotiating. The last  contract went nearly two years without being renewed, so I think we have room for  improvement. The role of the Fire Chief at the bargaining table is typically as a subject  matter expert, however, I believe bargaining might be more successful if the Chief were  permitted to take a more active role. Both sides seem to view contract negotiations as  adversarial, and that is because they often are. Open communication, transparency, and  respect would go a long way toward fixing this broken system. If you think that is not possible, I suggest you look at and analyze the most recent round of contract talks and  decide if there is room for improvement. It is my opinion that whatever was done in that round, is not efficient, or cost effective for either side, and I encourage Town Administration  to think outside the box to find a better and more productive solution for future bargaining. 

One idea for improving the overall Union vs. Management perception, would be to remove  the shift officers (Captains & Lieutenants) from Local 2509 and create a separate officers  union. This would empower the officers to conduct themselves as supervisors, rather than  union teammates. Accountability, discipline, and respect would be improved across the  board, and the Captains and Lieutenants Union would have the capacity to be role models  for all new and incoming firefighters and first responders, for the betterment of our entire  community.  

I understand I am no longer in consideration for the position of Fire Chief, but I felt it was  important to respond to your memo to address the areas that I was unable to address  during the search process. Some of the plans listed in this letter are already in motion,  others will require an investment from this Town to see them through. Historically, the  Nantucket Fire Department is a place where progressive ideas go to die, despite the best  efforts of previous Chiefs. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m hopeful that because of all that  has transpired these past few weeks, that we are now in a time of positive change.  

You are certainly free to choose the next Fire Chief as you see fit, and this letter is in no way  intended to state that I am more qualified than any other candidate whom I do not know  and have not met. It is simply to provide answers to your concerns about my own  deficiencies as a Chief candidate, concerns you have requested that I address.  

As you know, I was initially hesitant to apply for the position of Fire Chief. After  encouragement from the Town Manager, the Human Resources Director, and search  committee member Neil Patterson, I decided to apply. While I believe some aspects of this  process have been handled poorly by Town Administration and Human Resources, I am  hopeful that our next Fire Chief will truly be the best person for the job. Most important to  me is that I have a leader who respects and works with our firefighters, not against them. I  know how unique our fire department is and I know what it takes to advance our mission. I  read in an article recently, about one fire department being compared to other  departments, “If you’ve seen one department, you’ve seen one department.” And I’ve seen  the Nantucket Fire Department. I know we need someone to support the employees who  dedicate their entire lives to this community and this job, rather than be an adversary who will inevitably foster discontent within our ranks. 

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