Amherst looks for new fire chief

AMHERST – Selectmen are expected to begin interviewing candidates for fire chief soon, almost a year after Chief Mark Boynton left to take a similar position in Massachusetts.

Selectman Tom Grella said the board will probably discuss the question of a new chief at their next meeting on Feb. 9, and there is an employment ad ready to be sent out to newspapers.

Deputy Chief Matt Conley has been acting as chief since last spring, and at the selectmen’s Jan. 26 meeting, three Amherst firefighters urged the board to appoint him chief.

“You have a very well-qualified acting chief right now,” said Deputy Chief Brian Disco, who said the uncertainty about who is going to be the next fire chief is wearing on the department.

“You have an easy and quick solution by appointing the acting chief,” he said.

Fire Lt. Eric Swenson noted that the department has had three chiefs in nine years and Conley “would bring a lot of great expertise” to the job.

“Matt has been the foundation of the department,” said fire Lt. Robert Raduazzo, “This is a vacancy that needs to be filled as quickly as possible” and appointing Conley would provide a “seamless transition.”

The remarks came during a public hearing on a consultant’s report on the town’s fire and emergency services departments.

Municipal Resources Inc. was hired to assess public safety services for Amherst and in its 79-page report recommended that fire and EMS departments merge and be located together under one leader.

At the Jan. 26 meeting firefighter and EMS responder James Lockwood criticized the report, saying its recommendations “show a general misunderstanding” of EMS and that it is “riddled with unsupported facts.”

He urged caution in adopting some of the recommendations, but agreed that having one department head would be a big cost saving and made sense.

Neither department has a permanent leader. Former EMS Director Brain Gleason resigned last summer after 15 years leading the department. He was indicted by a Hillsborough County grand jury on a felony theft charge a month ago. The indictment alleges Gleason used a town credit card for personal purchases.

MRI called the current lack of leaders in both departments “a unique opportunity” and the town’s challenge will be “recruiting a transitional leader capable of integrating both fire and EMS.”

The report, which can be seen on the town web site, noted some apprehension about daytime fire response.

The town commissioned the study after a week-day daytime propane leak at an apartment complex that resulted in Milford Fire Department making the initial response because Amherst on-call staff were not available, according to the report.

Also Boynton, the former chief, had noted the lack of coverage and “the need for a career firefighting force.”

On the plus side, the report said the department’s on-call component consists of a “healthy compliment of 40 trained firefighters and fire officers that provide an exceptional level of service and value to the community.”

Preserving those benefits should be a primary goal, the MRI report said.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@cabinet.com or 673-3100.