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BY KATIE THISDELL
Stafford County's first chief over career and volunteer fire and rescue services is leaving next month.
Chief Rob Brown, who came to Stafford in September 2005, accepted a position this week as fire chief of Fresno, Calif.
He was contacted as part of national search in November and has been talking with Fresno's city manager about the job periodically, he said.
"I finally decided to take the plunge," Brown, 49, told the Stafford Public Safety Committee on Thursday evening.
He notified County Administrator Anthony Romanello on Wednesday, when he accepted the position. Brown emailed all members of the department Friday.
"I did not envy your job," Supervisor Gary Snellings told Brown at Thursday's meeting. "I knew you were going to have a tough time. And you did. But I have to give you credit. You stuck to your guns and got us to where we are today. We're going to miss you."
The county's fire and rescue department has changed significantly in the past 6 years.
"Before you got here, I can tell you, it was bad," said Snellings, who served on the Fire and EMS Commission at the time. "We had a tough time. We were in The Free Lance-Star on a daily basis. We had volunteers that were just running crazy."
A supervisor-appointed Fire and EMS Commission was in charge of overseeing the volunteer departments in the county.
But in January 2005, after a year of dealing with a variety of fire and rescue issues, supervisors decided to create a chief's position with authority over paid and volunteer personnel.
"It was a culture change here in Stafford. It took a lot of pressure off the Board of Supervisors," said Supervisor Jack Cavalier, also on the board at the time.
An ordinance was written with input from fire and rescue volunteers, and the commission was phased out.
When Brown started in 2005, the department had 45 paid and 300 volunteer personnel at the county's 14 fire and rescue stations.
Now, there are 116 career staff and 467 volunteers, 250 of whom have responded to at least one call in the past year.
The county has 15 fire and rescue stations that work with 14 volunteer rescue or fire-rescue companies.
The department responds to 23,000 calls each year and has an annual budget of $15 million.
"It may have appeared tough, but quite frankly, the folks in this system have always had the right stuff in their heart," Brown said. "They're cranking like a well-oiled machine."
Starting in mid-May, Brown will lead a much larger department in central California.
The Fresno Fire Department serves California's fifth-largest city, with a population of 510,000. The 24 fire stations are staffed with 357 personnel who answer 33,000 calls per year. The department has a budget of $57 million.
Brown said the Fresno department was previously led by a good friend who retired.
Brown graduated from the University of Missouri and the National Fire Academy. His salary in Stafford is $128,235.
Brown said his wife, Beth, will remain in Stafford with their four sons, at least for a year, to let their oldest complete his senior year of high school in the county.
Stafford's Romanello said he will soon talk to the assistant chiefs and work to appoint an interim chief.
It could take at least six months after that to find a permanent chief.
"What we're going to be looking for is someone with the skills set and talents to take us to the next level," Romanello said.
What that "next level" entails is under consideration. Supervisors are pursuing options for a study on the fire and rescue department.
"I think Chief Brown has built a really solid bench in the fire and rescue department," Romanello said.
The fire chief reports directly to the county administrator. Supervisors will work closely with Romanello during the selection process, which could involve an executive search firm.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975