Saline Area Fire Board Interviews Finalists for Chief's Job

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The Saline Area Fire Board interviewed the two finalists for the fire chief's position at a meeting at Saline City Hall Wednesday evening.

The finalists are Brandon Sears, a longtime Saline resident and Saline firefighter since 2001 who is currently lieutenant in the department, and Jason Sperle, fire marshal with the nearby Pittsfield Township Department. Each candidate answered 10 pre-determined questions from the fire board, with Sears highlighting his community roots and Sperle touting his education and certification. Both spoke of their passion for working in the firefighting profession.

The Saline Area Fire Board has scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m., April 15, where the board could vote to negotiate a contract with Sears or Sperle.

At the outset of the meeting Mayor Brian Marl outline the role of the next fire chief.

"Our next chief should focus on operations, hiring, employee accountability, grants, technology, capital investments, budget, fire investigations, strategic planning and ensuring that personnel are appropriately trained and equipped to meet the needs of Saline community," Marl said.

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Here are the 10 questions and summaries of the candidates' answers.

Question 1 - Introduction

Sears: I've lived my whole life in Saline and I've worked my way up in the department. I wanted to become part of an organization to give back to the community and fell in love with the career.  I tried to become the best that I can be. I've continued to take classes to better myself and become better a better member of the community.  I'm so humbled to be here. I'm honored.

Sperle:  I lived in a tent as a child for a little while, then we moved into a camper  and then we lived in my grandma's basement. So I had a little bit of a rough childhood. My mother was an employee at the prison. She was murdered when I was 15. The reason why I bring that up is you'll see where my heart is. Her death made me grow up real quick and to be able to get through her death, I fell in love with the fire department. I enjoyed helping people and I was grateful for the people that helped her. The fire department became my family. I have an associate's degree from Schoolcraft college in fire science, a bachelor's degree in public safety administration from Siena Heights University and a master's degree from Eastern Michigan University in fire management and homeland security. I am a licensed building official in the State of Michigan.

Question 2: Provide an example of an issue you handled that required an extraordinary amount of patience.

Sears: There are a lot of those in our field, especially when we are dealing with  community members that are having an emergency. To pick one, I  can think of numerous car crashes where there are intoxicated patients and they seem to be combative and you need to be a very good speaker with them to kind of defuse the situation.

Sperle: My current role is as the fire marshal. Pittsfield's growing. I'm dealing with planners and elected officials and dealing with contractors. We're running out of room. The parcels that are left to be developed - there's a reason why they're still there. Typically, it's because fire code won't allow them to be developed. So I have multiple projects that I work on for months and months.  When I do my job well, people are mad at me and that requires a lot of patience.

Question 3 - How would you handle a union grievance that you believe should not have been filed?

Sears: Being in the union and serving as union president I have thought about how that situation could unravel. Being a realistic person and being a good communicator is important to help you get a better understanding. There are always two sides to every story.

Sperle: So I think if there if there's a grievance that I think shouldn't have been filed, I think I failed prior to that.  I believe in transparency. I believe in working out issues prior. My goal is to never have a grievance filed. I plan on working with the union and board long before it grievance gets filed.

Question 4. Share a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty to get the job done.

Sears: I'm here to care for people. I'm here to give support. I'm here to give back to the community. I'm here to keep them safe and to protect their property. Any instance we go on, there are multiple ways where you can go above and beyond to help people secure their home, or clean up their house before you leave. I wish I could give you a better scenario but I guarantee there have been times that I may have not have thought they were the biggest, but to somebody in the right situation, it was huge for them.

Sperle: I have a hard time saying anything I do in my profession is above and beyond the call of duty. I believe that's what we that's what we're here for. People call us on their day. So what's above and beyond that's a hard question to answer. What I can talk about is something I've done to make us a better service. In Pittsfield, we run US-23 and I-94 on a daily basis. The amount of flat tires that end up on the freeway is uncountable. So instead of leaving people stranded on the highway, I went out and bought a four-jack we started changing tires. Now it's pretty much standard in Pittsfield that if you're stranded and a fire truck's coming down the road, you'll be back on the road within a couple of minutes.

Question 5. Describe a personal attribute that needs improving.

Sears: COVID-19 has brought a plethora of negativity. There are challenges of staying positive trying to keep your employees positive and your team positive.  I find that that is one of my good attributes to be able to calmly communicate, within reason, and be realistic in the conversations that we have.

Sperle: So one of my attributes that I need to improve on is I wear my heart on my sleeve. And sometimes that's good and sometimes it's bad.  If we're playing Euchre you don't want to be my partner because when I get the alone hand I'm smiling ear to ear.  It doesn't make me a good politician, But you know what you're getting with me. I feel like transparency is a good thing and I think communication is a good thing.

Question 6: Volunteerism/Community Involvement.

Sears: I recently joined the Saline Coalition for Quality Community, a very good group of leaders within our community. I serve on the Saline High School Lacross board. It was my way of giving back. I sit on the Washtenaw and Livingston Medical Control Board as a representative for the City of Saline. I am also part of the dispatch research committee. I do look forward to taking off running and doing more through the community

Sperle: I have coached high school football for the last 12 years at two local high schools. I can admit that I don't think I'm qualified to be on Saline's football coaching roster - and I'm OK with that. My wife is the cheer coach at Lincoln, so we constantly have kids at our house. I've organized a charity hockey event with the help of another firefighter with police and fire for a different charity every year. I run a committee for a scholarship fund for scholar-athletes at Lincoln high school. I organize, with my wife, a charitable golf outing. Our free time is usually spent going to the college game or event to support someone.

Question 7:  What would you like to accomplish within five years.

Sears: I think the direction I'd like to take the department is just in a more positive proactive approach. I think that we can look forward to having more full-time employees. The reason behind that is is we're just not seeing the paid-on-call employees coming in and being trained and wanting to be part of the fire service. I'd like to see the updating of some of our guidelines and policies and become a little bit tighter as an organization. I want to employees to be able to pursue their leadership courses. I also think about working closely with the school district and trying to come up with ways that we can get our youth to be excited about wanting to be firefighters.  It's so nice to be able to have community members, that know the streets and know some history about the community, to be able to come on to the force and make it a career and find the passion that I have found. We all know there's going to be a time here in the future where we're going to need to spread out and maybe build a substation so that we can better provide for our community - a faster response for those critical needs.

Sperle:  I want to see a progressive fire department but with that being said I don't want to come in and change a bunch of things. I have gotten a lot of support from (Saline firefighters), but that's also because I don't come plan on coming in and changing everything. There's a legacy that sits in these rows behind me that I have to respect. There are guys back here that were volunteers before I was born that didn't get a dime for doing what they did. I have to respect that and I have to build off their legacy. But with that we also have to move forward so I would like to see a bigger department with more manpower. I'd like to see at least another station. Five years is going to go quick but it's also a long time. We have to budget for those things. I have to work with the board on making these things happen.  I didn't choose to apply to be the chief here because I wanted to be a chief. I chose to come here because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead a department that doesn't need a turnaround chief. Most of the time when you're looking for a chief it's because the old chief got fired. I highly respect Chief Hoeft. I'm glad that he gets to retire on his own free will. That doesn't really happen much in our day and age. So I get the opportunity to take over department that is successful

Question 8. Why are you the best fit to lead the Saline Area Fire Department?

Sears: The one thing that I'm so proud of and why I feel I'm a great candidate is my community involvement. There are so many people that I've built relationships with here in the city. Being a Saline community member and living throughout the multiple townships throughout my life, I met great people. I've learned about them, about where they live. I've learned where their farms are. That's not the whole thing about being a chief, but it sure is a pretty part, where you have the ability to know people, to have resources, or avenues to get things done. Saline is my home. I'm staying here until I retire. So I would be honored, I'd be privileged, I'd be so excited to go up to the next level and prove to you all that I am exactly what you hope for.

Sperle: I have over I have about 22 years experience in the fire service. I grew up in and around the fire service. I've never stopped going to school. I think that education is important. I know the City is Saline, as well as the surrounding community, believes in education. I haven't stopped learning and I don't plan to stop learning. I have extensive knowledge in fire investigation and inspections. Right now the county is short on fire investigators. There is also not a lot of fire inspectors out there anymore. I think I already have the support of most members of the department. I am already established regionally as you see my references. Saline High School and Harvest Elementary are both in Pittsfield Township. I'm responsible for those (schools) and I work with the community on public education. I already work with some of the Saline firefighters on providing community education.

Question 9. When you consider leading the Saline Area Fire Department, what is one thing that concerns you?

Sears: The comment is thick skin. Being a people person, I thrive on making people happy. We're in some challenging times with the media and with pessimistic conversations. I'm nervous about being the negativity catcher, but it's nothing that I can't handle. It goes back to communicating with the public. If you have people that are angry at you or don't agree with what you're doing, try to have the best conversation you can have. You're not going to win them all. But you may be able to let them see something they haven't seen.

Sperle:  Some of the things that I hear do make me pause. We are in the transition where we have paid-on-call. We also have full-time. Some people want to get rid of the paid-on-call. So I have to work with both sides there that's going to be a challenge. I want the community to have great things to say about us. What worries me, though, is that it's a small town. I have seen the paper. They like the locals and I'm okay with that. However, tradition impedes growth. So part of what my challenge is going to be is we have a small town with a small-town feel.  How do we keep that feel and be progressive at the same time? So budgets come into it.  I would love to see a large department but we have a small budget to work with.  I have to work with changing some of the some of the small-town mindset while maintaining the small town charm. 

Question 10. Do you have questions (for the fire board)?

Sears: No I don't. I know so much about this department already.  I do want to take this opportunity to thank every one of you for putting so much work into this process, to have faith in me to be able to sit here.  I look forward to communicating more and making great decisions and moving this department forward in the future. I would be honored.

Sperle: I would be interested in what you think the number one thing a fire chief would be. (Marl responded by reiterating the comments he made at the outset of the meeting).

Public Participation

The public is invited to offer their opinion in this online form. Carol Joyce, office manager for the Saline Area Fire Department, and Mayor Marl will compile the comment cards and online comments and present them to the fire board next week.

The fire board received more than 50 applications for the position. Consultant Frank Walsh screened the applicants

Five applicants met interviewed before the Saline Area Fire Board's hiring committee two weeks ago. They chose Sears and Sperle as the finalists for the job.

The fire board is composed of Mayor Marl, Saline City Councillor Janet Dillon, York Township Supervisor Chuck Tellas, York Trustee Sean Gleason, Lodi Township Supervisor Jan Godek, Lodi Trustee Bill Lindemann, Saline Township Supervisor Jim Marion, Saline Trustee Robert Marion, and at-large member Tom Solowczuk.

Marl also thanked Saline Area Fire Department office manager Carol Joyce.

"She's put in countless hours assisting me and Frank (Walsh) and this process wouldn't be where it's at today without your contributions, Carol, so thank you very much," Marl said.

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