January 3, 2013

Portland's new fire chief pledges 'transformation'

Chief Jerome LaMoria, 50, sworn in at City Hall Thursday, was picked after two national searches.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Jerome LaMoria got his first taste of the fire service riding with his father, who was chief of the fire department in tiny Newfane, Vt.

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Jerome LaMoria, right, Portland’s new fire chief, has his chief’s badge pinned on him by his father, Norman – a former fire chief in Vermont – during the swearing-in ceremony at City Hall on Thursday.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Soon, as a boy of 12, he was allowed to broadcast over the radio when they were responding to help another community.

As a young teenager serving as a junior firefighter, he rode his bicycle behind the trucks going to fires, donning turnout gear when he arrived.

So it was with great pride and a sense of tradition that Norman LaMoria, 75, pinned the chief's badge on his son's dress-blue uniform as he was sworn in as Portland's 14th fire chief Thursday at City Hall.

"Most anyone around Newfane and Brattleboro knows him," said Norman LaMoria, who attended the ceremony along with other members of the LaMoria family. He brought congratulations from members of the small department and others in town.

After Fred LaMontagne retired as chief last year, Portland conducted two national searches before choosing LaMoria.

LaMoria will oversee a department with a $16 million budget and 234 employees, and will earn $95,000 a year.

In his own remarks Thursday, LaMoria, 50, paid homage to Portland's firefighting tradition, noting that today's professional firefighters are the descendants of the first volunteer companies, mustered in 1787 with names like Vigilant, Alert and Deluge.

Now, as then, the fire service is changing, LaMoria said.

As the number of fires diminishes, he said, the fire service responds to a growing array of emergencies and threats: hazardous chemicals, technical rescues, advanced emergency medicine, weapons of mass destruction.

"I pledge to lead this transformation while never forgetting how the Portland Fire Department got here and why I was recruited," LaMoria said in the State of Maine Room, which was packed with local officials and fire chiefs from several local and out-of-state departments.

He said it would be irresponsible to make sudden changes without understanding the department and how current practices came to be.

John Brooks, president of the local firefighters union, presented LaMoria with his badge, a tradition in the department.

"The foundation and core of a great department is already in place, and we welcome fresh ideas," Brooks said.

LaMoria left New England to study at the University of Maryland, where he signed on with the fire department. He spent most of his career with the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department, retiring as one of three deputy chiefs responsible for protecting nearly a million residents.

He worked for the past year as training and exercise coordinator for the Prince George's County Office of Homeland Security.

LaMoria said he's excited to lead his own department and believes Portland is a good fit.

In Prince George's County, he said, "The size and geography was so overwhelming, you sometimes had a difficult time initiating any real change."

Minutes before introducing LaMoria, City Manager Mark Rees spoke of how the changing demands of emergency management call for innovation and ongoing improvement.

"The fire department doesn't just put out fires anymore. They're all hazards," he said. "The community he's coming from is at the forefront of emergency response."

Improvements are needed, Rees said. When the remnants of Hurricane Sandy hit Maine, city officials gathered at the emergency operations center. Rees noticed that the monitors were older-model televisions, and when the power went out, all of the computers shut down and had to be rebooted.

This week, the city signed a $39,000 contract with Public Safety Solutions Inc. of Maryland for a comprehensive review of the fire department.

Rees said the analysis is well timed because LaMoria, coming from outside the department, is more likely to be open to any recommended changes.

Rees said he selected Public Safety Solutions because its recommendations are implemented more often than those from some other companies that submitted proposals.

Rees described LaMoria as pragmatic and methodical, and said an assessment firm that evaluated the candidates for fire chief rated LaMoria highly on getting the best out of his employees, working as a team and communicating with the public.

LaMoria takes over for Steve Smith, who served as interim chief for the past nine months. As his first official act, LaMoria presented Smith with an honorary silver speaking horn.

Silver horns were used in the days before public address systems to communicate on the fire grounds, and are now a symbol of command.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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