Decision not to renew N.H. chief's contract shocks firefighters
Several Swanzey firefighters expressed frustration with the decision and threw their support behind Chief Bill Gould, who they described as a strong leader
By Ryan Spencer
The Keene Sentinel
SWANZEY, N.H. — The select board told Fire Chief Bill Gould this month that his contract, which expires at the end of the calendar year, will not be renewed, the board chair and town administrator confirmed Wednesday.
But when town officials announced the decision at a mandatory fire department meeting Monday, many firefighters sought answers and called on the board to reconsider, according to multiple people who attended.
"Our vision for the direction of the department was different," Select Board Chair Bill Hutwelker said in a phone interview Wednesday. "And we just felt we needed to go in a different direction."
Noting that the select board's decision happened in a nonpublic session, Hutwelker declined to say whether the vote was unanimous or elaborate on how Gould's vision diverged from the board's. He said he did not know if the board would be open to reconsidering.
"We wish nothing but the best for Bill and the members of the department," he said.
In phone interviews Wednesday, seven members of the fire department expressed frustration with the decision and threw their support behind Gould, who they all described as a strong leader.
Many of the firefighters described the fire department as a family under Gould and said he fosters teamwork. Others said the fire chief — who, according to his résumé, spent 30 years as a firefighter in New Haven, Conn., rising to the rank of deputy chief before retiring in 2018 — brought professionalism and improved training opportunities to the department.
Deputy Chief Brandon West, who said the select board's decision "doesn't sit right" with him, noted that Gould helped the town obtain an ambulance during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, pursued grant opportunities, and updated policies and procedures.
"He's done a lot of great things in the short period he's been here," West said. "Which I guess is why it's shocking to me that [the selectboard] won't re-sign his contract."
Capt. Tyke Frazier, who heads Swanzey Fire Station 3, said the select board should have consulted with fire personnel before deciding not to renew the chief's contract.
"Our chief has promulgated positive change," Frazier said. "... The last thing we need is change right now. Changing the chief is a terrible, terrible decision, and I can't describe the amount of upheaval it'll cause."
When Swanzey officials announced the non-renewal of Gould's contract during Monday's meeting, Frazier said, dozens of firefighters expressed their support for the chief, who the town had hired in February 2020, with a standing ovation. Only members of Swanzey's center station — located under town hall — did not stand in support, he said, describing a decades-long rift between that station and Swanzey's other two stations.
"The members that chose to sit represent center station," Frazier said. "All members of east and west [stations] applauded while members of center chose not to."
Capt. Keith Bell, who heads the center station, did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Lt. David Mark echoed support for Gould and said the loss of his leadership would disrupt momentum the department has picked up since he came on board.
When firefighters at the meeting asked questions about the select board's decision, the answers town officials gave did not shed much light on the situation, Mark said.
"They were unable to provide a satisfactory reason, in my opinion, for what they were doing nor could they provide a clear path for where they would like to see the department go in the next few years or what they're looking for in a new chief," he said.
Geoff Davis, a decades-long veteran of the Swanzey Fire Department, said, "the dynamics of this department haven't changed in the 30 years I've been around."
"A lot of chiefs have come and gone," Davis said. "Unfortunately, I don't think it's the chiefs that are the issue with the management of the department."
The Swanzey Fire Department has between 35 and 40 members, according to Town Administrator Michael Branley, who described Gould as "a very important part of our team over the past couple years."
The chief and fire inspector positions at the department are full-time, and there are two permanent part-time positions as well, he said, but other than per diem pay for weekend shifts, the department relies on volunteers.
Hutwelker, the select board chair, said the board does not solicit feedback from personnel in a department when making decisions about the leadership of that department.
"We wouldn't, in any case, solicit opinion from any member of the department," he said.
For his part, Gould said he's not ready to leave yet. The select board notified him of its decision in a letter dated Oct. 5, but Gould said he wasn't given a reason.
"I'm not sure what the decision was for," Gould said. "We made great strides in the past couple years with a lot of positive additions to the department. We've brought more people into the department; increased the capabilities of water rescue, fire training, fire tools; added the ambulance."
But, whether or not he remains at Swanzey, he said he's not ready to retire from firefighting.
"It's not just a job," he said. "As corny as it sounds, it's a life, and I'm not ready to give that up just yet."
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