Selectmen unanimously select Steven Achilles as new Southborough Fire Chief

by beth on March 15, 2019

Post image for Selectmen unanimously select Steven Achilles as new Southborough Fire Chief

Above: The Portsmouth, NH Fire Chief is being offered the job in Southborough following this morning’s interviews by selectmen (L-R from Portsmouth Fire Dept website, cropped from Town’s tweet by @17Common)

Presumably there’s still a contract that needs to be succesfully negotiated. But it looks like our next Fire Chief will be Steven Achilles. The Fire Chief for Portsmouth, NH applied during the second round of applications. Selectmen unanimously named him as their top choice after interviews this morning*.

Repeated themes in board members’ stated reasons were: Achilles’ focus on communication, collaboration, and service. In sharing her choice, Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf opined it’s time to look for a department leader to foster growth and cohesiveness. She followed that she thinks Achilles is the one who can do it.

Opening the interview, Achilles told the board that he and his wife recently downsized to make their lives a little more flexible and easier. When he saw the posting in January, he was drawn by the “level” that the Town went to in identifying what the community and department wanted. That combined with the ideal characteristics and qualifications, talking to colleagues in the state, and some visits to the area cinched it. By the time he applied, he was “all in”.

In his closing statement, Achilles told the board that up until now he has been pitching himself. If hired, it will no longer be “about me”. It’s about the community. He said that as a member of Rotary, he tries to live their motto “service above self”. 

In between statements, Achilles answered questions from the board.

Achilles acknowledged that coming in from the outside will be challenging, but he’s learned from his experience. He was an external hire for Portsmouth’s Deputy Chief.  He said looking at the next 100 days if hired, he’d start by introducing himself to the department. 

He pointed out that staff hadn’t had a chance to ask him anything. He asserted it’s important to give them that chance and let them learn about his approach to the department and his core beliefs.

Achilles said he would look at making “measured, appropriate changes” but only where there are real issues. He clarified his intent would be to enhance the SFD and provide support to staff. He’s not looking to duplicate the dept he previously worked for. 

Asked about discipline, Achilles said that it would be important to set ground rules and get department “buy in”. That minimizes need, allowing more mentoring and coaching. When needed, discipline should be based on written policy and:

progressive in nature and appropriate to what the offense is. . .

We have to be accountable to you and the community.

The chief answered that the biggest challenge he sees for firefighters today is cancer risks. He clarified that everyone is concerned, but sometimes individuals or departments resist changing behaviors to reduce risk exposure. He gave an example about a decontamination process after a fire that gets firefighters wet and is uncomfortable.

Kolenda said he agreed with his colleagues who selected Achilles. He opined they’ll be getting “a very humble, but strong leader.”

That “humble” nature may be what led to the candidate’s answer to a question about what he regretted and wished he could do over. Achilles professed that he may sometimes have been “too honest” though not disrespectful. He said that for him, when he’s honest, “it’s out there and over.” He said he failed to recognize that for some people “it’s not over” and that he needs to “temper” how he approaches things sometimes. He’s tried to change that and “be attentive to it daily now”.

The first to name her choice for chief was Chair Lisa Braccio who said Achilles fit her vision for the department. She told the room that he “stuck out” for her for a variety of reasons. One of those was his answer to a question she posed. 

Achilles had explained that when he was Deputy Chief he supported the department’s decision to use a federal grant to purchase a 33 foot fire boat. As he told selectmen, “nothing is free”. Maintenance and related stipends for staff was costly. A couple of years after he became chief, he realized they needed to get rid of the boat. Too much was being spent outside of their core mission at the expense of staffing. 

He said that the PFD purchased the boat without first creating a mission statement. He told the board that among the lessons he learned was avoiding that position in the first place. 

He said his very unpopular decision to transfer the boat to another agency was “painful”. Achilles told the board that if they searched the internet, they’d find comments from people that were unhappy about it**. Braccio appreciated his willingness to take an unpopular step for the safety of the community. 

Selectmen’s decision was based on more than just the candidate’s philosophy. Members also referred to expertise and experience.

In sharing his selection, Shea explained that he had listened to the technical assessments from the assessment center. He noted to that Achilles answers included “extra details” the set him above. Shea said that was echoed in the “additional level of detail” in this morning’s interview.

Brian Shifrin and Braccio both thought Achilles background as a paramedic was important for the SFD.

Board members expressed gratitude for the search committee’s work to recruit two “wonderful” candidates.

The other candidate interviewed this morning was Neil McPherson. McPherson, a Sherborne resident, currently holds three jobs: Assistant Fire Chief in Wayland, Deputy Fire Chief in Sherborne, and Call Firefighter/EMT. He also has experience as an interim/acting Strong Chief. McPherson tried to make a case that his local experience was an advantage. He touted familiarity with state regulations and his familiarity with local departments. 

Both candidates’ resumes showed careers dating back to the late 1980s. But, McPherson’s part-time work overlapped with work in the insurance field until 2016. Achilles resume only lists work as a paramedic and/or for fire departments. He became Portsmouth’s Deputy Chief in 2000, Assistant Chief in 2003, and the Chief of Department/Emergency Management Coordinator in 2013.

Based on the job requirements, Achilles will ultimately have to relocate within 18 months. That wasn’t specifically discussed, but he told selectmen that he lived in Westborough from the ages of 102-12. He said that familiarity with the area was one of the draws for this job. Previously, the Search Committee Chair told selectmen that the candidate had articulated a plan to relocate much sooner than required.

According to an earlier tweet by Metrowest Daily News’ reporter Jonathan Phelps, Achilles planned to stop by the SFD this afternoon. This morning, the SFD posted the news to Facebook. It included:

Chief Achilles comes to us with a wealth of knowledge and experience in the fire service. . .

We are excited and eager to start the next chapter of Southborough Fire Department leadership, and look forward to continuing our efforts to improve on the great services we provide. Congratulations and welcome aboard Chief.

*If you would like to watch the video, SAM has streaming available online here or via YouTube here. They’ll also be rebroadcasting it tomorrow at 8:00 am and 7:00 pm on Verizon-37 and Charter-192. (Eventually, it will be available on YouTube, but I can’t say when.)

**My quick Google search on the fire boat issue didn’t dig up negative comments, but it did provide more context for readers interested.

In spring 2016, the PFD began the process of gifting a 33 foot boat to another town. The Laconia Daily Sun summed up:

Purchased by Portsmouth using a Homeland Security Grant for $353,000 in 2006, the Portsmouth Fire Department determined that the $15,000 to $20,000 a year to maintain the boat, coupled with the costs of personnel who can navigate it, did not make financial sense for the department. It was rarely used.

In March 2016, posted more details when covering a request by the chief to replace the 30 foot boat with a smaller one. In April, the Laconia Daily Sun reported that the decision to get rid of the boat (initially to Gilford) was made. You can find more details on the boat including the upkeep costs and lack of use here.

1 Dean Dairy March 17, 2019 at 1:00 PM

Unfortunately, it appears the BOS didn’t ask the prospective chief candidates how they could accomplish what we need for less. From a $353,000 boat to the new public services complex being built in town, the question is whether the taxpayers today are being taken for a jaunt?

That “humble” nature may be what led to the candidate’s answer to a question about what he regretted and wished he could do over. Achilles professed that he may sometimes have been “too honest” though not disrespectful. He said that for him, when he’s honest, “it’s out there and over.” He said he failed to recognize that for some people “it’s not over” and that he needs to “temper” how he approaches things sometimes. He’s tried to change that and “be attentive to it daily now”.

Learning to adopt that “go along to get along” attitude may prove to be the new chief’s “Achilles Heel”, and ours.

Not sure we should go so far as the “volunteer” route, but an opinion piece from the Washington Post points out the endemic issues…

Fewer fires, so why are there far more firefighters?
Washington Post
By Fred S. McChesney September 4, 2015

If you want to chat with a firefighter or see a fire truck up close, you can go down to the local firehouse at any time of day. The crew will probably be there, lifting weights or washing down the already gleaming red engines. Career firefighters usually live at the firehouse for a day or two, then take as many as three days off. Between eating and sleeping at the station, they mop floors, clean toilets and landscape the yard — with a few hours set aside daily for training and drills. Mid-morning, you’ll find several of them at the local supermarket doing the day’s grocery shopping.

In other words, being a firefighter these days doesn’t involve a lot of fighting fire.

Rapid improvements in fire safety have caused a dramatic drop in the number of blazes, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Buildings are constructed with fire-resistant materials; clothing and curtains are made of flame-retardant fabrics; and municipal laws mandate sprinkler systems and smoke detectors. The striking results: On highways, vehicle fires declined 64 percent from 1980 to 2013. Building fires fell 54 percent during that time. When they break out, sprinkler systems almost always extinguish the flames before firefighters can turn on a hose.

But oddly, as the number of fires has dropped, the ranks of firefighters have continued to grow — significantly. There are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago, but about 50 percent more people are paid to fight them.

This is no secret. Across the country, cities and towns have been trying to bring firefighting operations in line with the plummeting demand for their services. Many solutions have been attempted: reducing the length of firefighters’ shifts; merging services with neighboring towns; and instituting brownouts, which temporarily take an engine out of service. But often, these efforts have failed against obstinate unions and haven’t reversed the national increase in fire department payrolls.

Instead of addressing this municipal waste with patchwork plans to cut overtime and shrink staffs, many cities and towns should consider throwing out the very concept of the career firefighter and return to the tradition of volunteers…

But the era of massive fires that claim hundreds of lives is over. Large-scale disasters, such as the 1942 Cocoanut Grove inferno in Boston that killed 492 people, and the 1903 Iroquois Theatre conflagration in Chicago, which killed 602, are largely forgotten. As recently as the early 1980s, it wasn’t unusual to have a couple of home fires a year that resulted in 10 or more deaths each, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Today, that kind of fire-related tragedy is almost unheard of. There wasn’t a single one between 2008 and 2013 (the most recent year recorded).

For fire departments, building blazes — catastrophic or not — have become infrequent. Firefighters responded to 487,500 structure fires across the United States in 2013, which means each of the nation’s 30,000 fire departments saw just one every 22 days, on average. And yet, taxpayers are paying more people to staff these departments 24-7. As a result, the amount of money shelled out for local fire services more than doubled from 1987 to 2011, to $44.8 billion, accounting for inflation.

To be fair, fire departments have shouldered additional responsibility since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and are expected to have the training and equipment necessary to respond to various types of terrorism, including biological and chemical attacks. Still, in a November report, the National Fire Protection Association blamed the surge in fire department funding on ballooning staffs, overtime pay and retirement and health benefits — things that have nothing to do with the threat of terrorism.

Local firefighter unions have fought hard to grow their ranks as fires decline. Although private-sector unions have been diminishing, representation of government employees has remained strong, and firefighters have been among the beneficiaries. Labor contracts have allowed them to maintain healthy incomes: Firefighters earned a median salary of $45,250 in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but overtime can more than double that. In Los Angeles, for example, the average firefighter was paid more than $142,000 in 2013, including overtime and bonuses, the Los Angeles Times reported. Exorbitant overtime costs are fueled by union-negotiated minimum-staffing levels that often mandate four firefighters per engine be on duty at all times, regardless of the cost or workload.

At the national level, the International Association of Fire Fighters has an annual budget of nearly $60 million, most of it derived from its 278,000 members. IAFF calls itself “one of the most active lobbying organizations in Washington,” advocating for pension, safety and overtime laws. Its political action committee, FIREPAC, spent nearly $6.4 million in 2014, according to The union’s constitution forbids members from serving as volunteer firefighters, under penalty of fines or expulsion.

Union leaders and fire department chiefs have found new ways to justify their growing budgets and payrolls. In a February 2001 report, the Wall Street Journal noted that 90 percent of firehouse calls in Los Angeles, Chicago and certain other cities were to accompany ambulances to medical emergencies. “Elsewhere, to keep their employees busy, fire departments have expanded into neighborhood beautification, gang intervention, substitute-teaching and other downtime pursuits,” the newspaper added.

Not much has changed. Today, fewer than 4 percent of fire department calls are for fires. Meanwhile, requests for medical aid more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2013, to more than 21 million, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. In other words, for every structure fire a fire department responds to, it receives 44 medical calls, on average.

So “fire” department has become a misnomer. In practice, these agencies have become emergency medical responders. The problem with that? Most communities already have ambulance services, whose staffs are less expensive and more highly trained in medical aid. Many cities mandate that their firefighters be certified EMTs, which requires about 120 to 150 hours of training in basic emergency medical care. That’s far less than the up to 1,800 hours of training for the paramedics who staff emergency medical services. Yet paramedics are cheaper than firefighters, earning a median of $31,020 in 2012.

Still, you’ll often see a large ladder truck respond to medical calls along with an ambulance, resulting in multiple uniformed cadres when just one person needs attention. To justify this, firefighters have touted themselves as “first responders” who can answer a medical emergency faster than paramedics in an ambulance. But when they arrive without the training and equipment to deal with severe medical emergencies, they are of little use.

Recognizing the overlap, some cities have merged their fire and EMS services, over union objections. Some require that all members of the newly combined agency be certified to respond to both types of crisis, which improves efficiency and lowers costs. But other cities have struggled to merge the cultures and operations of the departments.

Municipalities that have stuck with the volunteer model got it right — and that is most of them. About 69 percent of all firefighters in the country are volunteers. It is mainly larger cities and towns that have been burdened by union staffing and salary demands that are incompatible with their declining firefighting needs. The number of volunteer firefighters fell by 3 percent in the time paid firefighters grew by nearly 50 percent.

Protecting a sizable city with a volunteer force is possible. Since 1930, the city of Pasadena, Tex., has used 200 active and 50 semi-active volunteer firefighters to protect its now more than 150,000 residents. If all towns up to that size moved to all-volunteer forces, the national payroll of career firefighters would be reduced by more than half. Using the median firefighter salary, municipalities would save more than $8.8 billion a year in base pay.

This is not to say that our largest cities could operate with volunteer firefighters alone. Sheer population size may necessitate a core group of full-timers. But payrolls certainly shouldn’t be growing as fires are decreasing.

Nor is this to say that professional firefighters are not heroic. They are and have repeatedly proved as much, most notably during the Sept. 11 attacks. But volunteers also are capable of such bravery. When we entrusted them with protecting our largest cities from blazes, they showed up and courageously put their lives on the line. In 1835, New York’s volunteer firefighters faced freezing conditions to battle the conflagration that destroyed Lower Manhattan but killed just two people.

Today, heroism isn’t what our firefighting services need most. As the risk of massive infernos declines, what we really need is to rethink our entire firefighting model — and how much we should be paying for it.

2 BoSox49 March 19, 2019 at 10:25 PM

Dean- why all the anti- fire department negativity ? The new chief hasn’t even started yet and your throwing out taxpayer expense scare tactics . And what’s with this volenteer fire nonsense article ? If my kid goes into an allergic reaction at dinner time and needs 911, and the ambulance is tied up at a route 9 car crash call , guess what -the full time fire truck can respond in 4 minutes and proved life saving care with meds because they double as paramedics….If I smell a gas leak in my house at 2 am- I’d rather a full time fire dept check it out right away and assure my safety. Not wait 15-20-30minutes for a volenteer dept to show up because their coming in from home…. If my Carbon monoxide alarm goes off, I’d rather the fire dept show up in 4 minutes and check it out to make sure it’s safe . I have friends that are firefighters and most people like the author of the above article Love to tell firefighters how the job should be done when in fact they have zero experience whatsoever in the fire dept field. I have good peace of mind knowing there are full time firefighters ready to handle ANY emergency in the town.

3 Dean Dairy March 20, 2019 at 11:47 AM


Why all the anti-fire department negativity?

“Anti-fire department negativity”? Kindly point out where I expressed any such thing.

The new chief hasn’t even started yet and your throwing out taxpayer expense scare tactics.

Suggesting the BOS should ask the “prospective chief candidates how they could accomplish what we need for less” money is not a “scare tactic”.

If anything, my trepidation was hearing the new chief openly testify that he learned to adopt a go along to get along attitude after “he failed to recognize that for some people ‘it’s not over’ and that he needs to ‘temper’ how he approaches things sometimes. He’s tried to change that and ‘be attentive to it daily now”.

Sounds like Mr. Achilles had been punished by the usually criticism that follows being, as he typified, “too honest though not disrespectful”.

And with all due respect, your response to my comment in both content and tone makes Achilles’ point about what kind of response occasions any questioning of the status quo, doesn’t it?

And what’s with this volenteer fire nonsense article ?

Actually, I wrote: “Not sure we should go so far as the ‘volunteer’ route, but an opinion piece from the Washington Post points out the endemic issues”.

By that I meant the trends over that last few decades that indicate a reallocation of public resources away from the traditional firehouse model might be prudent. And what better time to review those mission goals than while interviewing a new Fire Chief?

For example, maybe the town should tell the new chief that being “too honest” while being respectful is okay, and he has our support?

That’s not telling “firefighters how the job should be done”, it’s supporting the firefighter entrusted to manage town resources to manage those resources effectively on behalf of the town, not according to internal politics.

Obviously, you prefer the status quo, which is one viewpoint. But that should be the start of a debate, not the end of one.

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