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Albert Alston has helmed Wilson Fire/Rescue Services for more than a year and has ushered in a myriad of changes, including a restructuring of the department ranks.
“We did a needs assessment of where we were and where we wanted to go,” Alston said. “For continued improvement, we thought the best things was to expand the rank structure and officer development, which gives people the opportunity to move up the ranks.”
New OPERATIONS Positions
When Alston was promoted to chief in October 2017, the department had four deputy chiefs, three battalion commanders, 16 captains and three lieutenants, with the rest of the operations personnel serving as engineers or firefighters. Since then, the department eliminated one deputy chief position, added a compliance administrator position, increased the number of captain slots to 21 and eliminated the rank of lieutenant, as well as hired a hiring and recruitment officer. The department also added two new firefighter ranks.
“A senior firefighter is an employee that has gone and got some significantly advanced training in technical rescue disciplines, more high-risk operations,” said Deputy Chief Ben Smith. “All of our workforce in operations is trained in rescue, but senior firefighters are seeking training beyond that.”
Smith said firefighters who meet many but not all of the requirements to advance to engineer can attain the newly created rank of master firefighter.
“If they meet those credentials and take those steps, they become more of an asset to the organization and are able to do more, so we’re able to give them that career step,” Smith said of senior and master firefighters.
In the last eight months, one employee has become a master firefighter, and another employee was promoted to senior firefighter. Smith said he anticipates another handful of employees will be promoted to master firefighters in the next six months.
“When I first made chief, I met with everyone in the organization, and a lot of the guys were asking to expand the ranks to add senior firefighter,” Alston said. “We were able to budget and accomplish that, and the guys, to me, appear to be excited.
“It keeps us on the road of continued improvement.”
Since the department did not have a limited number of positions for engineers and the two new firefighter ranks are a step below, officials said it was not a costly change.
“We consolidated some levels of supervision with captains and lieutenants, so we were able to pull off this reorganization with very minimal, if any, budgetary impact,” Alston said.
The changes were not limited to the operations division, though. The fire prevention bureau was renamed to community risk reduction with Deputy Chief Jim Campbell serving as the fire marshal, overseeing two assistant fire marshals and three fire inspectors.
“Pretty much, community risk reduction is an expansion of everything we’re looking at — not just fire prevention, but falls or anything that has to do with risks within our community,” Campbell said.
Alston said staff is using data from the operations division to spot trends and determine where educational programs could help the community. For example, the prevalence of cooking fires is one trend the department is working to reverse.
“(Cooking fires are) preventable and that is the whole focus of the community risk reduction division,” Smith said. “It is preventable.”
The change also allows the former fire marshal, Blake Holloman, to focus on construction while the other assistant fire marshal oversees fire inspections and risk reduction programs.
“Because we have an acting assistant fire marshal, Blake is able to focus on construction projects in the city, which have increased, and that is a great thing,” Campbell said.
Deputy Chief Michael Sumner oversees several new positions that will have an affect on the department in the long term. One such was the hiring of Sarah O’Briant, whose focus is on recruiting.
“When we would send out job advertisements, we were not getting very many people and the people we were getting were not in the community, so Sarah’s main job is to focus on people who live in the city of Wilson and Wilson County,” Sumner said. “She’s been big on getting into the high schools and also the community college, Barton, and she’s expanded beyond that by going to events at N.C. State, Chapel Hill and other Division 1 schools. She’s helped us expand our horizons and the pool of people we reach.”
O’Briant’s efforts have led to the hiring of a young man who had served the department through high school as an intern as well as three female firefighters also hired recently.
“We try to match the diversity of the city with the diversity of the department, and Sarah has done an amazing job doing that,” Campbell said.
With the increase in captain positions, the department created three spots for safety and training captains, who are assigned to each shift and serve as the safety officer for all incidents.
“Originally they started as eight hours during the day, but we saw so much value that we saw it needed to be a 24-hour position on each shift,” Campbell said.
The department has stepped up training efforts, especially with firefighters’ counterparts at other agencies. Wilson Fire/Rescue Services also has added a monthly community CPR program that will provide free certification for residents in providing this life-saving intervention, but space is limited; information will be on the department’s website soon.
“We all work together,” Alston said, “and that is what makes everything happen.”