Fire Chief Selection In Final Stages
By Sean Sullivan
The town is in the final stages of choosing a new Fire Chief.
Natick’s erstwhile chief is Michael Lentini, who retired last month after serving the town for over three decades. Lentini will remain in the role provisionally until his successor is selected.
The process of hiring a new fire chief is spelled out in the town’s bylaws. The Select Board is charged with establishing a screening committee, a group tasked with outreach and selection of a pool of candidates for the position.
The first steps of the process began late last year, when the committee engaged the services of Municipal Resources Inc., an organization that assists local governments with administrative and procedural undertakings. MRI operates in New England, and includes former and active municipal staff in its ranks.
MRI invites the roster of applicants before its panel, putting the prospective Fire Chiefs through its process of evaluation.
From an initial slate of about 15 candidates selected by the screening committee late last year, the firm conducted interviews and assessments, narrowing the pool down to six. That number fell to five when one candidate dropped out of the process.
“MRI does a kind of scrubbing of the candidates,” said Jamie Errickson. As Natick’s Town Administrator, he’s been involved in the process of selecting the town’s next Fire Chief. The initial pool of applicants for the role would typically be around 40, said Errickson, adding that a tight labor market led to a much leaner list of candidates.
The five were further put through their paces by the screening committee earlier this year, which distilled the group down to three.
“It’s a pretty extensive, exhaustive process,” said Errickson.
Natick employs the “strong” fire chief standard, a term of art in Massachusetts law. Under the strong chief statute, authority to hire and fire the chief rests with a town’s Select Board, not the Town Administrator.
In addition, the strong designation bestows authority over the fire department’s personnel with the chief, including the discretion to hire and fire staff. It also grants the chief purview over policy decisions within the department, and control over its budget.
Owing to its implications about where authority resides, the strong chief standard can be a source of contention within communities, with municipalities debating and putting the matter to a vote. Personnel within fire departments tend to favor the strong chief model.
“Every community has a different philosophy on this issue,” said Errickson.
Because of the broad authority granted to a strong chief, the process of hiring someone for that role is all the more thorough. When such candidates appear before hiring panels, they are often quizzed in question-and-answer format on a variety of subjects and situations, everything from budgets to personnel to policy to infrastructure.
“Public safety is hugely important,” said Errickson. “It’s a good size department with a good size call volume.”
The final three candidates include two Deputy Fire Chiefs from Westborough and Weymouth. The third, Daniel Dow, is Natick’s Deputy Fire Chief. Natick’s Select Board was expected to choose and hire a chief from the three in May.