Candidates for fire chief answer to public, firefighters

Editor's note: See also "Schofield recommended to be next JC fire chief" for additional developments that occurred Friday.

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Firefighters and citizens got their chances to ask questions of the three finalists looking to become the next fire chief of Jefferson City.

The fire chief position has been vacant since the retirement of long-serving Chief Bob Rennick in March 2013.

Before Thursday’s forums started, the candidates, Interim Fire Chief Jason Turner and captains Jay Niemeyer and Matt Schofield, gave their qualifications for the job.

Turner has been with the Jefferson City department for 17 years and is a third generation firefighter.

Niemeyer has served 14 years in Jefferson City along with stints with the Lee Summit Fire Department and Boone County Fire Protection District.

Schofield has been with the Jefferson City department for 15 years as well as serving on Missouri Task Force 1, the urban search and rescue unit based in Boone County.

The questions from firefighters included how the candidates would work with the firefighters union.

“I will have an open door policy, and having fire administration and the union working together, we can reach our main goal which is to make the department the best it can be,” Turner said.

“I’ve walked in your shoes,” Schofield said. “We can reach solutions based on common experience.”

“By working from the bottom up, getting all parties involved, that will lead to less ambivalence between the parties,” Niemeyer said.

Each candidate was asked how he would deal with low morale. Some firefighters have said the morale of the department is as low as they have seen in some time.

“There’s just been a lot of uncertainty the past several months,” Niemeyer responded. “There’s no vision so that leads to uncertainty among some in the department. Once a chief is put in place, that uncertainty could go away.”

“I agree no chief has an effect, but I think better communication is necessary,” Turner said. “Having all three shifts of firefighters operate the same will help. Morale starts at the top and my program will make working together a priority.”

“There’s no quick fix,” Schofield said. “You have to trust the command staff. Know that we have your best interests at heart. No amount of money will make a difference in that.”

Firefighters also asked the candidates what their vision for the department would be for the next five-15 years.

“How we’ll deal with improving our apparatus will be key, and your opinion will matter since you are the men and women riding on those trucks,” Turner said.

“I would emphasize more training,” Schofield said. “I would like to make advanced life support part of our first response training. We do what we need to do and don’t use a lack of funds as a crutch.”

“I want the most professional and well trained department that Jefferson City can afford,” said Niemeyer. “In the past, we have started things and not followed through with them. I want to get citizens input as well on what they think needs to happen.”

Firefighters also asked the candidates what would they do if they did not get the chief’s position.

“I would be committed to do whatever I’d be assigned to,” Turner said.

“I’d still be a captain here, and I’ve got a good job,” Schofield said. “It would be bittersweet, but I’d still be doing what I want to do.”

“I would do what the chief would ask me to do,” Niemeyer said. “I’d stay here and do my job as captain.”

The candidates were asked in the citizens’ forum what they thought were the two most important assets and two most important detractions of the department.

“The men and women who serve in the department and their ability to do more with less I think are the best assets,” Turner said. “The budget is the main detraction and improving morale are the detractions.”

“The men and women of this department have had to do with what we have, and with a lot of open positions, they’ve filled those holes as best as they can,” Niemeyer said. “The budget keeps us from doing more.”

“The goodwill and trust we have in the community is our best asset,” Schofield said. “The transition period we’ve been going through and the lack of chief has been hard.”

Earlier this month responses were tallied to a three-question citizen survey dealing with the department and chief position. The survey, which was available from June 23 to June 30, received 129 responses to the question “what is the most important issue facing the … Fire Department,” and 138 responses to the question “what is the most important attribute of the next … fire chief?”

A majority of the responses identified budget and funding as the most important issues and many cited experience, knowledge and leadership as the most important attributes of a fire chief.

The seven member citizen recommendation committee is scheduled to meet today to review the discussion in Thursday’s forums and consider comments left by firefighters and citizens on forms that were available for audience members to complete.

The forms had six “yes” or “no” questions, including whether or not each candidate should be hired as the next chief, and also asking for a rating on each based on a scale of 1-10.

According to the City Charter, the fire chief position is appointed by the recommendation of the city administrator and the approval of the mayor and council.

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