Q&A: New Columbia fire chief details plans for department

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 | 6:13 p.m. CDT; updated 7:09 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Columbia Fire Chief Charles P. Witt Jr. talks on the phone with the Boonville fire chief on Thursday.

COLUMBIA — Charles P. Witt Jr. started fighting brush fires at the age of 14 with the Sullivan Fire Department in eastern Missouri. Thirty-four years later, he is the newly appointed chief of the Columbia Fire Department, replacing the retired Bill Markgraf.

One month into the job, he sat down with the Missourian and answered some questions about his plans for the Fire Department, including changing the level of medical services provided, getting accreditation and setting up web-based training.

Q: How does it feel to be the new fire chief of Columbia?

I have to pinch myself when I wake up in the morning because it’s still like a dream come true. It was a humbling experience, and it still is very humbling. It’s a great experience to be associated with a department of the caliber of Columbia, and I’m just excited beyond words.

Q: Is firefighting in your family?

Going back on my mother’s side, I had an uncle who was a captain in a department out west. In my immediate family, I was actually the first, and my brother and father followed me.

I was a junior firefighter, and basically we got to do the rolling the hose and learning the stuff, but we couldn’t go inside and fight fire. We could fight natural-cover fires, and that normally got us out of school a couple of times a year, so that was really the super-cool thing.

After I had done that, my brother also joined as a junior firefighter, and we needed a way to get to fires. Well, my father decided that he would join so we would have transportation.

The natural-cover fires got us out of school. Most kids, when you’re in high school and you hear your name called out over the speaker to report to the principal’s office, you’re in trouble. When they started calling out our names, the other kids got jealous because they knew we were getting out of class to go fight fires.

Q: How has your career changed over the years?

Starting out at the tender age of 14 and going through those experiences I told you about, it’s evolved with each rank I’ve obtained. I’ve worked in every rank we have here at the Columbia Fire Department. As those ranks change, so does your responsibility.

A lot has changed in 34 years in technology and the way we do business. It has impacted how we do business and the things that we do.

Back when I first started, EMS was kind of a buzzword. Technical rescues was just a thing that we did, and it didn’t have that title to it. It’s evolved into the technical level that we do those rescues — the building collapses and the events of 9/11 and the Alfred P. Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma kind of redefined how we do business.

Q: What are your strategic goals for the Fire Department?

You know, without trying to be cliché, the No. 1 thing that we always have to do is to serve our customer. It is our main focus. The other thing we want to do is understand we have more than one customer.

We have the external customers, which you know about, but we also have our internal customers, which are our employees in our other departments. And when I say “departments” I mean other city departments — we’re all on the same team — and outside of that, our mutual aid partners, other fire departments, allied emergency medical services and law enforcement.

We’re working in a time when everybody has limited resources, and we have to work together and pool our resources to achieve that level at the expectation that we’ve set for customer service.

Q: I understand getting accreditation was a possibility for the department – is that something you are pursuing?

Yes, as a matter of fact, we had a meeting this morning. We’re going to try to increase our priority on obtaining accreditation. That’s mixed in with all the other things we have going on.

Understand, this is my 31st day as the fire chief — to say there are a lot of irons in the fire is a misstatement. It’s a whirlwind to say the least, and we have a lot of priorities. So we’re working on all those as we can.

The self-evaluation process is probably the most valuable part of the accreditation, and even if we never achieve accreditation, we have benefited from the self-evaluation part. It’s helped us look at ourselves with a different set of eyes to provide that documentation for those peers.

We don’t have a full-time person dedicated to accreditation. We’re doing it in addition to all the other duties that a full-time person has. We work on it part time, and we get basically part-time results.

Q: Do you plan any changes to the current system of emergency medical response?

Three months ago, we spoke with the (City) Council about allowing us to provide (advanced life support). We have paramedics in the department who can function as paramedics only after an ambulance arrives on the scene and requests us to assist them with that level of service.

We’re hoping (the council) will fund us to allow us to purchase the equipment that would allow us to provide that advanced level of care prior to the arrival of an ambulance.

Our pilot program would utilize the personnel that we already have; we would just have to buy the equipment to allow them to practice at that advanced level.

Columbia runs at about 67 percent EMS, medical emergency calls. I think we’re right around 5 percent fire, and the rest of that’s filled in with other types of calls.

Q: What changes, if any, will you make to the training or location of training?

We have the training academy, which is the central place for our skills-based training. I would like to decentralize training for the most part. We can’t do away with training academy. Companies still have to work together as a team to keep those skills sharp. When you’re putting hoses on the ground, putting ladders up in the air and squirting water, the training academy is the place to do that.

But there are other skills that we also do and other didactic training that we do that if we had some type of distance learning tool, a webcast — it has to be interactive. There are models out there. We just don’t have the money that we need to purchase that, but at some point we will.

The whole idea behind that is to have them in their service area more often so they will be available for a call.

The more we’re in our response areas when we get the call, the quicker we can get to that call for service. Time is our enemy, or time is our best friend. If we get there quick we can normally have a more positive result.

Q: How is the fire service agreement with the Boone County Fire Protection District working out?

It’s working out very well. Our friends over at the Boone County Fire Protection District and us work together hand in hand, contrary to stories that you may have heard years ago. We’re moving forward.

We do train together. (They will train six times together this month.) We respond with them on what’s called “automatic aid,” so there’s fringe areas of our territory on the outskirts of the city that they respond to with us, and there’s fringe area in their territory that’s close to the city that we respond to with them.

We’re working together to provide the best service that we possibly can to both of our customers.

Q: What are the challenges of operating in a college town?

Being in a college town is just a wonderful, wonderful deal. It makes Columbia the unique place that it is. For emergency purposes, it does create challenges from time to time, but who would want to be in any other place?

Right around spring break, the start of a semester, the end of a semester, our call volume tends to rise. Accidents happen, and we respond to those.

We’ve done a number of what we would consider proactive things. We have a Fire Department employee who is also a 50 percent (full-time equivalent employee) with the university that does a lot of educational activities on campus.

We try to do other things through codes and code enforcement to control the building designs that would lead to greater safety — in particular residential sprinkler systems would aid in protecting those individuals inside of a building should there be a fire.

Q: Do you have any other goals for the Fire Department and fire safety in Columbia?

Our No. 1 goal is to achieve zero fire fatalities.

Every year, from our code enforcement issues, which basically focus on buildings and on design, to our educational programs, which focus on behavioral change, we hope to achieve zero fire fatalities.

Q: Do you have any advice for people who are interested in working with the department?

I can only say that it has been the most rewarding thing that I have ever done in my adult life.

On a personal level, this gets difficult. You see some things that people really shouldn’t see — hardship, trauma that others have encountered. And it gives you a little better appreciation for what you have.

Unfortunately the very young and the very old are our highest groups that are susceptible to something bad happening. We all have parents and some of us have children, so when you run on those groups it kind of sets home with you, and as your children grow up in that high-risk group of college-age students, everything just kind of strikes home with you.

It kind of makes you appreciate what you have a little bit more because it is so precious.

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