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Cleaning house in house that needs good cleaning

New Clearwater fire Chief Jamie Geer has been working only three weeks, but he already is firmly in control of the department. Last week he showed his two chief deputies the door, appointed a new deputy chief, and began writing his game plan to turn around the troubled department.

Geer solicited the resignations of Deputy Chiefs Terry Welker and Mark Weinreich. Welker was brought in two years ago for the hard job of bringing discipline to a department that had lost its edge under fire Chief Rowland Herald. Weinreich had been with the department for 18 years.

Neither man had been able to win the respect and cooperation of the ranks, and both wound up burdened with almost as much baggage as Herald, who recently retired. Geer didn't need that drag on his efforts as he attempts to redirect the department _ a task that might be something like trying to turn an ocean liner.

The Clearwater Fire Department has been turned upside-down since the deadly Dolphin Cove condominium fire two years ago. Investigations revealed numerous deficiencies in the department and its procedures. Layered on top of that turmoil was a two-year (and counting) contract dispute between the fire union and the city, insubordinate behavior by some firefighters, and a leadership vacuum at the top.

Geer has some experience at taking the helm and steering in a new direction. He had to do that in his previous job as chief of the Franklin, Tenn., department. His statements to this newspaper in recent days indicate he has an understanding of some of the basics of leadership:

+ "I lead by example."

+ "I have to put together a management staff that I can depend on to execute the direction of this department in a manner that's consistent with my own."

+ "As fire chief, my job is to look ahead and best prepare for what will be the needs of the future."

He also shows he already understands some of the ways his leadership will need to be tailored to the specific history and shortcomings of the Clearwater Fire Department. For example:

+ "I felt very good about getting this department back on track, focusing on what's important."

+ "What is important is how we provide our services. We may have lost a little of that focus."

+ "What I enjoy most is the sense of pride when people belong to a fire service organization . . . It makes people happy to come to work. They've lost that pride to a certain degree here."

Geer said that after three weeks here he is pleased to see that when firefighters are called upon to do their job in the field, they do it the best they can and without complaining.

However, given the history at Dolphin Cove, the public can be forgiven for wondering whether the job they do is always good enough and if it can be done better. Is the training as good as it could be? Is equipment sufficient? Are there enough firefighters to do the job? That will be Geer's most pressing task here _ to determine if the service being delivered to residents and visitors in Clearwater is as good as it should be.

There is another, perhaps even more difficult task ahead for Geer. Clearwater residents have seen the worst of their Fire Department: the failures at Dolphin Cove, the offensive Draconian Times Web site, the nasty accusations, the effigy of City Manager Bill Horne. Firefighters insist that their conduct on the picket line or online is separate from their conduct at emergencies, but the public may not be able to draw that distinction. As Geer works to build his leadership team and review and improve the training and equipping of the department, he also will have to find ways to restore the public's trust in the professionalism of the city's fire and rescue workers.