Gladstone fire chief passing torch to take Vancouver job
Gladstone Fire Chief Tom O'Connor is leaving this month to take a position as special operations division chief at the fire department in Vancouver, Washington.
O'Connor expressed confidence in Interim Fire Chief Jeff Smith's "experienced, stable leadership over the coming months" as the city searches for a permanent replacement. Smith will officially retire Sept. 1, but the city has a work-back contract with him through June 2019.
O'Connor was hired as Gladstone's fire chief two-and-a-half years ago, at a time when the department's response system wasn't quite up to par with today's urban-area standards. He had a simple solution that he says was the major factor for Gladstone's largely citizen firefighters knocking their response time in half under his leadership.
"Our crews respond out of the station now, rather than coming from home," he said. "It wasn't an easy fix, but it was the obvious fix."
O'Connor was hired as an outsider to shake up the fire department. Prior to coming to Gladstone, he had served in leadership positions for the Life Flight Network, Canby Fire and the fire district for Lebanon, Oregon.
"We've gone through some significant change through the last two years," O'Connor said. "I was brought in as a change agent, and there's no secret to that."
Smith has written more than $2 million in successful grants for the fire department during his tenure. Through O'Connor's reassessment of priorities, the fire department's budget increased only 6 percent to add two captain positions. After Smith successfully applied to FEMA, the city received a $489,948 grant last year for three firefighting positions over three years, which essentially added a third captain position with positive impact to the general fund.
"A junior firefighter should be mentored by a captain or a lieutenant and that's been anchored in our system, and it's really paid dividends," O'Connor said. "All the significant changes that I wanted to make as fire chief have happened."
O'Connor credited Smith and Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Mike Funk as integral parts of the leadership that helped put in place new policy and strategic plans. These documents that represented fundamental changes to the fire department had to be approved during a turbulent period in Gladstone politics, in coordination with two city administrators and various elected city officials who often were newly elected or under the threat of recall elections.
After the mayor's husband was deemed one of the top candidates for a captain's position, O'Connor found himself in the center of what he referred to as a "robust discussion" among elected officials.
O'Connor weathered the storm, made the recommended changes and discovered how much he appreciated the way Gladstone has done a remarkable job keeping its identity as a city by maintaining its own fire and police departments. He said he couldn't have done it without support from City Administrator Jacque Betz and Public Works Director Jim Whynot.
In an email to City Council, Betz said she appreciated O'Connor's loyalty over the past two years and is "very pleased with how smooth a transition we will have in the fire department."
In Vancouver, O'Connor is looking forward to overseeing a fireboat program, special rescue and hazmat units in a fire department that is about 10 times the size of Gladstone's. He said he was lured by that potential in Vancouver, rather than feeling like it was time to get out of Gladstone.
"There was really no push, and I'd be happy to remain here if the Vancouver opportunity hadn't presented itself," he said.
Currently Gladstone's fire training chief, Smith began volunteering for the department about 25 years ago and was hired by the city in 1999 to be the department's full-time volunteer coordinator.
On O'Connor's last day, the public is invited to a Change of Command ceremony at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14, at the Gladstone Senior Center, 1050 Portland Ave. All are welcome to celebrate O'Connor's last day with the department and be present for Smith's formal swearing in.
Editor's note: This article has been updated from its orginial version online to correct several technical references to firefighting in Gladstone. Due to the projected hot weather, the Gladstone Fire Department Change of Command Ceremony has been moved from the fire station to the senior center.