The town of Chelmsford is faced with the challenge of finding a fire chief capable of leading an inexperienced department.
Town Manager Paul E. Cohen thinks the right person for the job is the man already at the helm: Fire Chief Michael Curran, a 36-year veteran of the department.
Curran would like to stay on the job, but he turns 65 in July, the mandatory retirement age for public safety personnel in Massachusetts. Cohen is seeking approval of a home-rule petition that would extend Curran’s tenure for up to two years beyond the limit.
The issue will be put before Chelmsford voters at the Oct. 15 Town Meeting. If the home-rule petition is passed, it would still need approval by the state Legislature.
“The primary reason for seeking the extension has to do with turnover in the Fire Department,” Cohen said, noting that, because of a flurry of retirements, a quarter of the town’s 55 firefighters have less than one year of experience. And the nine officers in the department — two deputy chiefs and seven captains — all have less than two years of experience in their current positions. Three of the captains have only one year of experience in that position.
“The hope is always to promote from within,” Cohen said. “Two more years would give them more experience and better prepare them for taking on the responsibilities of the chief’s office.”
Curran has been Chelmsford’s fire chief for two years. He succeeded Jack Parow, who led the department for 15 years. According to Curran, Parow started the process of mentoring and encouraging people to move through the ranks. It is a legacy that endures under Curran, who recently added a full-time training officer, a position the department did not have in the past.
“I want to continue to mentor our current firefighters, to give the town the best pool possible for the chief’s position,” said Curran, who rose through the ranks himself, and was chosen from more than 30 other applicants for the chief’s job.
Curran, who earns $119,205, said his reasons for wanting to extend his tenure have little to do with his personal balance sheet — he already has earned the maximum retirement benefit — and more to do with leaving the department in the best possible position.
An additional two years also would give him enough time to work with the town’s Permanent Building Committee to build a new Center Fire Station, a project that has been more than five years in the making.
Voters had twice refused to approve a temporary property tax increase to fund replacement of the crumbling Center Fire Station on North Road. Finally, Town Meeting in April approved plans to borrow funds for the construction of a $7.8 million facility. The debt is to be repaid without an increase in property taxes.
Last year, Chelmsford reopened the town’s fifth fire station on Acton Road (Route 27), which was closed in 2009 because of state cuts to local aid, Cohen said.
Under the current plan, existing town offices on Billerica Road will be converted into office and meeting space for the Fire Department and an attached addition will be built to house fire apparatus and equipment, a kitchen, and sleeping quarters for the firefighters assigned to the station.
Construction is expected to begin in late winter or early spring, Curran said. The town expects to take occupancy of the new station in 2014.
“The [Center] station is the biggest issue that I would like to see completed,” said Curran. “I think it’s important to have some continuity as we move forward with that project, rather than having someone new come in in the middle of it.”
The warrant for Town Meeting is scheduled to be signed by the Board of Selectmen on Monday. Town Meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Chelmsford Senior Center on Groton Road.