The Rutland City Fire Department is having some growing pains.
While at least one recently departed senior firefighter says changes there have been for the worse, a number of his former colleagues say the department is beginning a new day.
In 2015, James Miles was in line to be the next fire chief. In late October, he took a paid separation agreement and left the department after 33 years. Miles got $37,945 for unused sick and vacation time, $6,000 a year for health insurance through 2029 and $25,000 in “additional consideration.” He said recently he believes the department is on its way to ruin.
“I was having difficulty working with the new chief,” Miles said. “The changes that he was bringing to the station, I felt, were going to put the men and public in danger. ... Morale at the station is probably the worst I’ve ever seen it. I was probably one of the guys there with the most pride in the entire department, and now that is all gone.”
That’s one view.
Union president Seth Bride said morale was strong and that Chief James Larsen, who took over in April, was getting more buy-in to the changes he is making than his predecessor did. Firefighter Colin Fitzsimmons said the department had seen more “quality training” in the past six months than it had in the previous 3 years.
“There is now a level of accountability never seen here before,” firefighter Brent Adams said. “There’s accountability on the fireground ... but also personal accountability — having someone hold you accountable for your actions, or your non-actions. It’s right from the top to the bottom.”
Miles was a deputy chief and served as interim chief for about three months in 2015 after the departure of Robert Schlachter. Then-Mayor Christopher Louras hired Michael Jones as chief, saying he intended for Jones to only hold the job for a short time, during which he would develop new leadership from within the department. While Louras would not be more specific about the likely identity of the next chief at the time, he said recently that Miles was the brightest prospect.
“In my opinion, as his direct supervisor, he had already proven himself capable and he had the building blocks to be the next chief,” Louras said. “I was very satisfied with his work as interim chief between Schlachter and Jones.”
Jones was not a firefighter, but rather a recently retired career NCO with the Vermont Army National Guard, chosen by Louras for his administrative abilities. A plan Jones devised to restructure the fire department was met with fierce resistance from the firefighters. The firefighters union unanimously voted “no confidence” in Jones and numerous firefighters — including Miles — campaigned for Mayor David Allaire, who ousted Louras in the 2017 election.
Jones departed soon after Allaire took office. A lengthy search process for a new chief followed, with the first candidate put forward by Allaire withdrawing his name a short time later. Miles said he put his name forward, but was never interviewed.
Bride, who served on the search committee, said they did an anonymous survey of the entire department — union members, officers and substitute firefighters — about what they wanted in a chief. He said a strong preference was shown for a leader who would be on the ground at fires and would bring “accountability” to the department.
Larsen, who had previously been a leader in urban departments in Minnesota and Illinois, was confirmed by the Board of Aldermen in April.
“Like any person coming in from the outside, there is a period of evaluation,” Larsen said. “You take a look at the operations of the department, and you don’t change anything until you see things that had to be changed.”
As he settled in, Larsen said, he asked about why the department followed various practices. The response, he said, was frequently, “Because this is Rutland.”
“The way this department was operated was different from other departments I’d worked at,” Larsen said. “Why do we send three trucks to a carbon dioxide alarm? The answer was, ‘That’s the way it’s always been done.’ That’s not always a good answer.”
Larsen said he found the department resigning itself to equipment that was different and less effective than what is standard at other departments, such as the nozzles on the “deck gun” hoses.
“There was a practice of using 3-inch hose for supply lines,” he said. “The fire departments I came from gave that up in the ‘80s.”
Larsen said he switched the department to 5-inch hoses, which provide more water at less pressure.
Organizationally, Larsen said he started to clarify the chain of command by creating “acting officer” positions and establishing qualifications for officers.
“My observations showed there was no succession plan here,” he said. “We were not preparing people for the next step. There was no roadmap for advancement.”
Disciplinary reports during Larsen’s tenure, acquired last week by the Herald through a public records request, show Larsen struggling with and disciplining some of his officers. Miles said he was one of them. The former deputy chief identified himself as the firefighter who was written up for referring to a firetruck by its old call sign on the radio.
According to the disciplinary report, “Engine 1” had been redesignated “Ladder 1.” Miles continued to refer to it as “Engine 1,” resulting in a letter of reprimand dated Aug. 2.
“It was an honest mistake,” Miles said. “It’s been Engine 1 forever and ever. It wasn’t intentional.”
Miles was dismissive of the reasons for the change, saying it was just because that was the practice of every other department. Larsen said he moved the department to the naming protocol because most departments use a level of organization in which the crews on different types of fire trucks — ladders and engines — have different roles at a fire scene. The change in language was reflective, he said, of the changes in organization at the department.
Larsen said the department spent the summer training in a new deployment pattern. While previous deployments were somewhat haphazard, he said, now each firefighter has a specific spot on a vehicle and an assigned role with specific equipment, letting them know exactly what they will be expected to do before a call ever comes in.
“Prior to this, you had a general idea of what your responsibility was,” Adams said.
Miles said the call sign incident was the last straw for him, but that his dislike of Larsen had been building. He said he had taken issue with a policy change in which the initial response to a call would be made with the same number of firefighters — seven — but with only two trucks instead of three. He said he believed it would make for less flexible responses, and that anything that might delay one truck would be delaying a greater proportion of the responding firefighters.
“I questioned him on a few things,” Miles said. “He told me his orders were law and I needed to follow them. I felt they were unsafe.”
Bride painted a different picture of Larsen’s relationship with the department. He said Larsen arrived with strong professional firefighting credentials, and, in particular, Larsen’s Chief Fire Officer certification, achieved by fewer than 1 percent of firefighters, carried a lot of weight with the rank and file. Also, he said Larsen had been solicitous of what the firefighters thought.
Michael Barrett, the senior firefighter and the department’s quartermaster, said one of Larsen’s first orders was to replace all the equipment past its expiration date. In the back of the truck bay sits a pile of coats purchased in 2004 — the National Fire Protection Association recommends against using them for more than 10 years. Barrett said he’d had his helmet, which has a similar life expectancy, for 20 years.
Larsen said the new response pattern fit with the new plan in which each firefighter has a specifically assigned role, allowing for greater flexibility in deployments and saving gas and wear and tear on trucks. Beyond that, he said, the change would likely help city residents see some savings on their fire insurance bills because it would favorably alter the “deployment standard” insurance companies use when calculating premiums.
“It’s not the amount of trucks that go,” Larsen said. “It’s what you are able to do with the staffing you have. ... Because we had three trucks but not a full crew, we weren’t getting credit for all our people and all our equipment.”
Miles said he took great pride in the unique qualities of the department, and suggested that if it were going to become like everywhere else, it might as well be renamed the “Everywhere Else Fire Department.”
“There may be a little bit of difference here and there, depending on what you’re talking about being different — every day stuff in the station or calls,” he said.
Miles allowed that there were probably ways in which the department could improve or modernize, but said Larsen was going about it wrong.
“You don’t change what’s not broken,” he said.
As Larsen and a handful of other firefighters finished talking to a reporter Tuesday, a call came in for a car crash at TD Bank. The conference room quickly emptied.
“Everybody knows where to go,” said Deputy Chief William Lovett, the only person left after the others departed. “It’s not ‘Who’s going to go on this one.’ It’s much more efficient this way.”