Shawn Wanner, Charleston’s newest fire chief and 24-year department veteran, said the department has so far weathered a pandemic, a tragedy and a wave of retirements in 2020. He hopes that resiliency remains while under his watch.
Wanner, 50, is an Elk River native, a Herbert Hoover High School graduate and now the 23rd person to serve as the City of Charleston’s fire chief. Wanner is taking over for former chief Jeffrey Jackson, who retired Nov. 6.
Wanner joined the Charleston Fire Department in April 1996 and has worked his way up the ranks. Now the top guy, Wanner said in a phone interview Wednesday the pandemic creates personnel challenges that can hamstring the entire department if safety precautions aren’t strictly followed.
“The coronavirus is very taxing on our resources,” he said. “We’ve had to put some people off that have had it. We’ve had to put people off that’s just been exposed. We’re following the guidelines from the health department to try to work through that and just keeping our heads up and plugging along trying to do the job.”
Keeping the department’s people safe is Wanner’s utmost priority, he said. He doesn’t want firefighters and medics to get sick on the job, then turn around and infect their family members.
When temperatures begin to drop outside, the number of fires in the city start to go up — especially in abandoned houses where the risk of COVID-19 exposure is unknown, Wanner said.
“In the wintertime, the fires rise. It just is what it is, been that way since I’ve been there,” Wanner said.
Just one COVID-19 exposure can quarantine an entire station, which poses a threat to the community’s safety as a whole.
“We’re hoping that we don’t have a big mass bunch off for COVID-19 if possible, that’s why we’re really trying to strenuously put out there to the guys ‘please wear your personal protective equipment and try to limit these exposures,’” Wanner said. “We’re also social distancing around the stations … that way our staffing levels remain adequate.”
In an interviewwith the Gazette-Mail in late April after taking over as fire chief, Jackson said the department was set to lose nearly 20 people during the summer due to retirement — and because of the virus, filling those shoes would be difficult.
Wanner said the department is in the process of replacing those retirees.
“We’ve got 24 new guys on day shift in training right now. That’s going to help tremendously,” Wanner said. “Hopefully the first couple weeks of January maybe, if we don’t run into no snags, these new guys will be out on the apparatus.”
Wanner said it’s not common to bring this many new bodies in at once, but COVID-19 prevented the potential hires from gathering to do physical agility training and other pre-employment screening.
“We’re just going to keep moving forward and try to do the best we can, and the sooner we can get these guys out on trucks the better — hopefully we’re going to try and hire a few more after that,” he said.
It has been almost five months since city firefighter and medic Jason Cuffee, 27, died from an overdosewhile on duty. It was the department’s first on-duty death since August 1980, according to the city.
Fire department administration pledged Aug. 18 in a city news conference there must be a culture change within the department. Wanner said he’s worked to make sure the captains and lieutenants, who oversee the day-to-day work at the city’s fire stations, know anyone can come to them with any kind of problem and they will receive help.
Wanner said he will continue those efforts as chief to ensure a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again.
“We, as the administration, don’t see everybody every day. These guys pretty much work with them every day,” Wanner said. “We’ve spoken to some of them and said ‘Hey look, if you guys see anything wrong, don’t hesitate. We’re here for you, we’ve got programs we can put people in and get them the help they need.’”
One major department goal that dates back to former fire chief Robert Sutler is to build an all-in-one training facility within the city. Currently, city firefighters take classes in Charleston, but do live fire training in Institute and use an old runway at Yeager Airport to conduct emergency operations training.
The hope is for a three or four-story building for live fire training and a nearby road course for vehicle emergency operations training. Jackson and Wanner have worked to complete this goal, but COVID-19 has slowed that too, Wanner said.
“COVID-19 has just definitely put a little bit of a hold on everything we’ve tried to get done this year,” he said.
Reach Joe Severino at [email protected], 304-348-4814 or follow @jj_severino on Twitter.
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