The two finalists to take the helm of the Boise Fire Department made their case to the community Wednesday night.
In a virtual town hall broadcast from Boise City Council chambers, Phoenix, Arizona Assistant Chief Scott Walker and Richmond, California Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard answered questions from the public about why they should be selected as the leader of the city’s fire department. They both talked about the importance of serving the community, keeping firefighters safe and making critical decisions.
Walker worked his way up through the ranks in Phoenix and served 26 years with the department. He served in various roles with the organization, including recruit training officer, public information officer and command staff. He said he was not initially looking to leave Phoenix, but when he saw the qualifications Mayor Lauren McLean advertised he said he met all of her criteria and the job and Boise’s quality of life “called” him.
“I don’t just want to be a fire chief, I want to be a fire chief in a community where I can have impact,” he said.
Sheppard served in the U.S. Air Force before starting his career with the Oakland Fire Department. Like Walker, he served in multiple roles there before becoming chief in Richmond at the end of 2014.
He said he is happy in the Richmond community, but hopes to move on to a new challenge and not “stagnate” as a leader. Sheppard also praised Boise’s inclusive community. During the town hall, Shepard read off his cell phone number and told Boiseans he takes calls 24/7. A resident has already called him, he said.
“I think the best thing (about being a fire chief) is probably the ability to serve,” he said. “I’m probably a little bit more low key than most chiefs. I’m not an extrovert or anything like that, but I like to get out and hear what people have to say and I want to affect their lives positively.”
Early in the program, Sheppard took questions about an overwhelming vote of no confidence against him by the Local 188 representing the firefighters in Richmond, BoiseDev reported earlier this month. He called the vote ‘disappointing’, but he recognized the validity of the grievances from the union over budget cuts and equipment.
A union spokesman told BoiseDev the vote was ‘premature’ and the union membership has worked collaboratively with Sheppard since.
“I believe the union had legitimate grievances, but I don’t believe the grievances resided with me,” Sheppard said. “I believe they were much larger. The issues where I currently work are large budget gaps, the inability to outfit the fleet with new equipment and making sure we had appropriate facilities, but that’s not to say I didn’t request new stations or new apparatus or new thermal energy cameras.”
Public safety in a growing city
Walker has never been a fire chief, but he believes Phoenix’s large size and similar issues with growth makes him a strong candidate. He also said Boise based many of its policies and organizational structure on Phoenix, so he feels comfortable hitting the ground running.
“Much like Phoenix, this is a growing city so I understand those challenges and have tackled those in Phoenix as well,” he said.
In response to a question about improving service as the city grows, Sheppard supported studying a range of factors to decide where more service is required. This includes density of the area, traffic, age of the population in certain neighborhoods. He also wants the department to be concerned with the health of Boiseans, instead of just how fast it took the department to arrive.
“We look at not only response times, which a lot of people will look at, but really it’s what is the outcome of the response,” he said. “Are people surviving if we’re getting called out for CPR?”
Concerns about rates of cancer in firefighters due to exposure of toxic fumes and the materials used to fight fires has become a concern in recent years. Post-traumatic stress disorder from intense calls have impacted firefighters and other first responders. To combat this, Walker proposed annual cancer screenings for all members in the department. He also suggested tracking high-stress calls and staff members who might be taking long amounts of leave afterward so staff members can reach out to them for support.
“We need to create a culture where people need to know it’s ok to say something, and our leaders know it’s the right thing to engage and not ignore it,” he said.