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New fire chief focuses on brighter future

More than two years after a condominium blaze exposed fatal flaws, the fire department is still dazed.

Labor spats only exacerbated tensions.

And last month, the department leader retired, saying he couldn't mend the fray.

Now the job is in the hands of Jamie Geer, a man credited with uniting a Tennessee fire department. As Clearwater's chief, he'll be asked to do the same.

Geer has already made big changes and has indicated more are ahead.

Wednesday, Geer asked for the resignations of his two top deputies, saying their style clashed with his vision. Minutes later, Geer sat down to outline his plan to heal the city's most fractured department:

Why take this job, given all its baggage?

I felt very good about what I accomplished in Franklin, (Tenn.). I knew there would be a lasting impact in the changes we had made. Plus, I really felt I had something to offer this city and this department. 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. And what I bring to the table is my experience and my ability to redirect that focus toward that goal.

When you ask another man or woman to risk their safety to help you perform your duties, it adds another dimension to supervision and leadership.

What are you first impressions of the fire department?

In sizing up whether I would accept the opportunity to come here, I really felt good about operations, the guys out in the field. I felt we had a connection that was encouraging. We do have a solid fire department here, a great bunch of guys. I also saw that, in my opinion, that we did need leadership here and we did need direction.

What will be the greatest challenge?

Obviously, the challenge is to establish yourself as a leader in this business. All the leadership skills and experience don't mean a thing if the guys won't line up back here and say "OK, let's go." So, for me, that's priority number one. We establish that connection: They understand what we're going to do and that they're on board. From there, we move forward.

I want to know what they have to say. I want them to know I'm approachable, that they can speak freely.

When you talk with rank-and-file firefighters, do you sense a level of frustration?

Certainly. There's no way to have the last couple of years' worth of events and not expect that there would be some frustration and morale problems. But as I come here, I can't deal much with what has already occurred. I got to deal with what I got right now and where I can take it in the future. I can't get bogged down in all of that past stuff. It's relevant and it has an impact, but it's time to assess what I have now.

Do you have the personnel and equipment you need? Are the fire procedures in place sufficient?

That's part of the assessment process, and that takes time. There's a lot to look at. I've only been here three weeks. I've observed a lot in three weeks, but those are complex issues.

What would be a measure of success? You said building leadership values are paramount. How do you quantify that?

What I enjoy most is the sense of pride when people belong to a fire service organization. I've experienced that before. It overcomes so many other things. It makes people happy to come to work. They've lost that pride, to a certain degree, here.

The labor negotiations have been tense and bitter and have served as a dividing line in the city. How do you fit into the talks? What is your role in trying to help?

That role may be clearly defined by law or by statute, but for me, I won't settle for what I may or may not do. It's not clear, as I walk through the door here, what that role may involve into.

But this is important. As I come in here, my primary objective is to run the fire department. That contract, that's over here, and it's important, and it's a meaningful thing, but for me, I have to direct this fire department.

How can the labor issues be settled?

If it was easy as having a pep talk, that would be fine. I'd do that. But these are complex issues and it didn't happen overnight. It's just not that easy to say, "OK guys, let's resolve this." It's not that simple. I wish it were. Do I have all the answers to fix that problem? No. Is it realistic to think so? No. Is that my purpose in coming here? No.

When I look at the operations, if people feel comfortable about the leadership of this department, if they feel that we're headed in the right direction with training initiatives, and making improvements to adjust efficiency and effectiveness, that helps fill a void. If they feel comfortable with what we're doing day to day, that only can improve the environment.

The Dolphin Cove fire in 2002 is something still fresh to a lot of Clearwater residents. Have you reviewed the fire and the subsequent investigation? What has the department learned?

It was an important event for this department, no doubt. It had a significant impact on this department and the city. I have reviewed a report on the Dolphin Cove fire, and I have also reviewed some of the steps that have been taken to address some of the issues that were raised. It's still too early to have assessed all the impact. What I bring with me is the realization of how an event like that can have such an impact on the city and on the department. I keep that in mind when we look at ways to improve effectiveness and efficiency.

There's much more to this than one event. That event brought much attention to this department. But as fire chief, my job is to look ahead and best prepare for what will be the needs of the future. If I try to build the department to address one incident that's two years old, I will be doing a disservice.

Despite everything that's happened, the most important duty of firefighters is to respond to citizens. If residents need you, will you be there?

The one thing I was impressed about with this department even before I knew I was coming here, was despite all the controversy and the problems and the labor negotiations and all those things, these guys are out here every day, doing the job. They're not complaining when they're out there. They're giving it all they got. They're doing the best they can do.

As fire chief, the least I can do is come in here, and make sure they got what they need to do that job, that's why I'm here. I am here to make sure they will have what they need in terms of support and training and leadership and tools.

The citizens of Clearwater can rest assured that when they call, these guys will give it their best.

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