EAST PROVIDENCE — Approaching a half-year in the position, Oscar Elmasian is just about getting his feet firmly planted in his role as acting chief of the East Providence Fire Department.
Chief Elmasian, who last held the rank of captain and served as the city’s fire marshal, took over the post upon the retirement of former chief Joseph Kluzcnik in the final days of December 2012.
The acting chief was certainly not at a loss for things to do in his new job, manning the reins of extensive renovation projects at two of the department’s four stations. He also oversaw the installation of the EPFD’s new training facility on the Central Garage grounds at Commercial Way among other substantive tasks.
“I’m five months into this position and I’ve been very, very busy,” Chief Elmasian explained. “We have two stations being renovated, one almost completely. Both are being extensively renovated at over $6 million. It’s a lot of work. I’m putting in a lot of 10-to-12-hour days, but I’ve got some great support from the people on the job. We have a lot on our plate. People need to be accountable to get these things done, and they have been.”
With that in mind, Chief Elmasian has started the process of revising the fire department handbook, delegating two battalion chiefs the task of updating guidelines which have pretty much remained the same since the mid 1950s. He’s also “putting the numbers together” to procure funds from Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) for damages the department suffered during Winter Storm Nemo.
Just as important, he’s conducted a series of meetings with all personnel in hopes of fostering a more cohesive and efficient atmosphere within the department.
“One of the first things I did was meet with the battalion chiefs for six hours. I asked them what they expected of me and what they think should be expected of them. And I was a little surprised in their answers. They knew what they have been doing and what they should have been doing,” Chief Elmasian said. “I want us all to be on the same page. I did the same thing with the lieutenants and the captains. I just had the same meeting with the firefighters. I wanted them all to understand their roles and responsibilities and what I expected of them.”
The chief expects a lot of himself in the position. He has a plan, a vision of how the department should operate and is intent on implementing his ideas into practice. He is, however, realistic, knowing change doesn’t happen overnight.
“There are things I would like to accomplish, but I’m not going to do it all in five months. I’m not likely to do it all in a year, but I’m hearing from the firefighters on the job that they’ve seen a change. I don’t expect the changes to be monumental, but the command staff now has the responsibilities and duties for what should be expected of their rank. Everyone knows what needs to be done,” Chief Elmasian said.
The chief said he’s delegated authority through the chain of command, but has done so with the understanding he expects proper procedures to be followed. When he asks questions of his subordinates, he continued, he does so attempting to understand what is taking place in a specific instance and why something is being done in that particular manner.
“We’ve made advances in tactics and strategies, we’re better equipped than we were when I started 27 years ago, but some of the little things have changed, and not for the better. I would like to bring those things back,” he said.
In essence, the chief is attempting to better define the obligations of his employees.
“I’m looking for accountability, which is something that can be accomplished through training. If someone has done something wrong, you can correct that through proper training, better training,” Chief Elmasian said.
“We’ve been very successful in the past in obtaining grants to advance in several areas, but I feel we’ve maybe been a little lacking in the basic fundamentals of firefighting. I would like to see us improve in that area,” he continued. “We have our new training facility, which is going to be very helpful. I’d like to see us take a more back to the basics approach.”
The approach, the way in which he runs the department, is key to the chief’s leadership style. Like his father, the revered former East Providence School Principal Arthur Elmasian, did in eating lunch and chatting with the students and staff, Chief Elmasian said its imperative for him to interact regularly and maintain a dialogue with the rank-and-file.
“Another goal, even as big as we are, is I need to spend time with the firefighters. I need to have communication with the guys,” he said. “I think it’s very important to have communication with our people. We should follow the chain of command, but if someone has a personal problem they need to discuss they should know my door is always open.”
There are plenty of staff openings in the department. At full strength, the EPFD should have 120 employees. That number is currently at 105 and could drop to 102 by the end of the year. And by October of 2014, 30 more firefighters will be eligible for retirement. The chief said he would like to hire at least 18 new firefighters over the next year.
In addition, Chief Elmasian continues to upgrade the department’s aging fleet of rescues. Earlier this year, he received approval to purchase a used rescue for just over $30,000. Recently, the department gained access to federal funds for use to buy a new, fully equipped vehicle for $303,000. As part of the grant, the city would pay a 10-percent match or about $30,300. It takes about six months to manufacture, so the chief hopes to have the new rescue ready for use by the end of the year.
Of note as well, the chief said he would like to initiate a capital improvement plan intended to be used to replace the department’s tired apparatuses as well as attend to some repairs needed at Station 2 in Riverside, a building that has remaining relatively untouched since being built in the 1970s.
An additional priority for the chief is to hire a aide, who serves as an Administrative Assistant to the Chief of Department. The previous full-time aide retired in 2009. The department then had a 19-hour per week secretary who resigned. Currently a former chief’s aid, who is retired, graciously agreed to work eight-hours a week to do payroll. Chief Elmasian is scheduled to go before the Budget Commission, May 23, to discuss the position further.
“We need to hire personnel to reduce the work load and overtime costs. We’re down firefighters,” the chief added. “These guys are working too hard. They’re working too long. We haven’t had a class in seven years. I would like to start the application process as soon as we can. We’re looking to apply for another SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant, which would help to reduce costs.”
Chief Elmasian’s time in the field has certainly been reduced since taking over his current position. He went from being in the field often to being more of a manager, something to which he has had to adjust.
“I miss not being on the ground. I miss not going to every fire and all the calls like I used to,” he said. “This job is all administrative work. Don’t get me wrong. I like it, but it’s different.”
Part of his administrative work is dealing with budgetary and personnel matters. The chief said he draws from his past experiences as the firefighters union president and as a private business owner in regards to both issues.
“I was the union president for 10 years. I think that’s an advantage. I have an in-depth knowledge of the collective bargaining agreement. I know how it works. It’s a wealth of knowledge to have in this position. And union president I learned how to work with the city. That’s definitely helped me out in this position,” the chief explained. “And the budgets, of course there are things I would like to do, but I know I can’t. I look at it like it was my business. You can’t spend money you don’t have.”
What Chief Elmasian has at the moment is an appetite for the position despite the added pressures and responsibilities.
“Being a firefighter in general takes a great toll on you personally, on you’re family life,” said Chief Elmasian, who expressed his enduring gratitude to his wife, Kerry, and two sons, Ryan and Tyler. “But this job take an even greater toll on you.”
Despite those concerns, Chief Elmasian said he freely admits he would like to be hired permanently.
“This is one of the greatest fire departments in existence. We do the same job as some of the bigger cities with less people. We have a great group of employees. It’s an honor to serve in this position,” Chief Elmasian said. “I was thinking of retiring when the City Manager (Peter Graczykowski) called and asked if I would be the acting chief. I look at this as the final chapter of my book. I’m in my 27th year in the department. I get goosebumps thinking about, but I still love my job. How many people can say that after 27 years?
“Do I want the job? Yes. I’m sure in a short time the city will go about the procedure to hire a new chief and I hope to be the guy who gets it. I feel like I’m just starting to get in the groove. I know what is expected of me and I’m working well with the other department heads. It would be an honor to be appointed full-time chief of the East Providence Fire Department.”