WESTBROOK – It was a Sunday evening in April and firefighters were dousing flames coming from a two-story house on Central Street when Chief Michael Pardue, who was at the scene, got a call about people being held captive inside a downtown business.
Pardue traded his fire coat for a bulletproof vest and joined the team of police officers who broke into the building.
“I remember saying to somebody, ‘This is the greatest job ever,’ ” Pardue recalled last week.
A month later, he was named the city’s first public safety director — a position he’d held on an interim basis since February.
Only a few Maine communities have one person leading both the fire and police departments.
Officials say the leadership structure is more common in Western states, where the history and culture behind the two departments’ distinct identities aren’t as deeply seated as they are on the East Coast.
The relationship between firefighters and police officers within a community is often tense. In some cases, it is considered a rivalry, with each department out to prove it provides the more essential public service.
Come budget time, the departments are often competing for taxpayers’ dollars, as well.
Pardue said the consolidation of chiefs’ jobs isn’t right for every community. It made sense for Westbrook because the police and fire departments were already in the same building and both had strong leaders as second-in-command, he said. “The stars have to be aligned correctly.”
Still, considering the cost savings on administrators’ salaries, and increased coordination and efficiency among the departments, the structure should be considered more frequently, he said.
“It’s a concept that I think has the potential to be evaluated by other communities as we look to streamline our resources and answer the economic challenges we’re faced with at this time,” said Pardue.
Whether that happens in the coming years could depend on the success of his department.
“Places like Westbrook … will be the proving ground,” he said.
TRIED … BUT TRUE?
With 44 police officers and 70 full-time and call firefighters, Westbrook’s public safety force is by far the largest in the state to have a single director, although Auburn is considering it for its comparably-sized departments.
There are three communities in the Bangor area — Hampden, Holden and Old Town — where the structure has been successful. Others that have tried to consolidate the jobs changed back to having a chief for each department.
The city of Gardiner replaced two chiefs with a public safety commissioner in the late 1990s, but ended up having to hire more lower level administrators to help with the workload. Longtime City Councilor Philip Hart said the insignificant savings weren’t worth the strife, and the city soon returned to having two chiefs.
“These departments, they’re really hung up on their chains of command,” he said. “For some reason, once you started mixing with that, it didn’t work.”
In Waterville, firefighters were similarly resistant to having John Morris, then police chief and current commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Safety, take over their fire department around 2002.
“They basically just felt they needed to have their own chief,” said City Manager Mike Roy.
Within a couple of years, the city instead decided to consolidate with neighboring Winslow, and hired its fire chief to head the Waterville department, too.
Initially hired as Hampden’s police chief, Joe Rogers said when he became the public safety director 17 years ago, the police officers and firefighters wouldn’t eat in the same room. So he made it a requirement that they did. Eventually, he said, they started sitting side-by-side.
“You can’t force change and have it happen overnight. It’s gradual,” Rogers said.
He said it’s frustrating when communities are quick to dismiss the concept of a public safety director because of tension between departments or because they think they’re too big or too small to consolidate the jobs.
There is, however, one prerequisite for success: “You have to want it to work,” he said.
THE RIGHT PERSON
Finding a strong manager who will give equal attention to both departments is paramount, Rogers said.
One of the first things Pardue did when he took over as interim director was move his office into the conference room on the second floor of the public safety building — not because he wanted more space, but because it was equidistant between the two departments.
He jokes that he used a measuring tape to make sure his desk was exactly in the middle.
Pardue, a retired Ogunquit police chief who owns a management and consulting firm in Kennebunk, was first hired by the city on a temporary basis to turn around a fire department plagued by harassment problems and lack of strong leadership.
Twice in recent years, former Police Chief Bill Baker took over as head of both departments while the city was searching for a new fire chief. That’s how Mayor Colleen Hilton first got the idea to combine the two jobs.
When Baker announced his retirement in January, Hilton came forward with her plan for a public safety director. She said the primary purpose was improved coordination among police, fire and dispatching services. She called the annual $96,000 savings in salaries and benefits “a bonus.”
City Administrator Jerre Bryant added that the higher-paying position would draw higher- quality candidates, which the fire department had had a hard time attracting. The public safety director’s salary is $99,760. Last year, the fire chief’s salary was $76,624 and the police chief made $92,148.
Pardue’s background in law enforcement and his past year as Westbrook’s fire chief wasn’t his only relevant experience. After retiring from Ogunquit in 1999, Pardue, 55, became the vice president of operations for a telecommunications firm and oversaw the merger of two pharmaceutical companies, a situation that called for greater sensitivity than that of the public safety departments.
“We’re not losing jobs and we’re not taking over from each other,” Pardue said.
But he knows it will be a challenge and, because he believes in the concept, it’s one he wants to take on.
Pardue said he doesn’t have a plan for how long he’ll stay in Westbrook, but hopes to solidify the director’s role as much as he can. The real measure of his success, he said, will be when his replacement is hired.
“You should always know when it’s time to go and not have the organization miss a beat,” he said.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at