Fire Chief Stephen Meranti, center, with the late Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco on receiving the MEMA award in 2015.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Stephen Meranti had a particular goal in mind when he updated his resume in the mid-1990s: to become director of the city's fire services.
Early next year, he'll retire after 17 years leading the North Adams Fire Department and as the first "fire chief" to retire in nearly 40 years.
"I've had a pretty good run I think, 33 years with the city and 17 as chief," said Meranti on Wednesday morning, as he sat in the mayor's office. "It's been a good run, we have great people working with the city, I've had made great relationships here. It's like the mayor said, bittersweet for me also. I love the job I but I had planned on my career retiring at 55 and here I am."
Meranti and Mayor Thomas Bernard announced the chief's retirement after more than three decades working with the city. His last day will be Jan. 26, 2021.
"Over the past almost three years, he has been a really incredible partner for me," said Bernard. "Particularly during the COVID time and the response to that, but just somebody that I rely on somebody I trust somebody, I can set my watch by, somebody I know is going to give me good, honest advice.
During his tenure, the Fire Department came to play a central role as a leader in mutual aid for the smaller surrounding communities and as a collaborative partner in developing a regional emergency management network.
"We have a great team here and that that's one of the things that I'm proud of, to be part of this," Meranti said. "The coordination and collaboration we have between all of the organizations."
He described North Adams as being the "big brother" to the smaller communities that rely on volunteer departments. NAFD has taken the lead on numerous local and regional grants that has resulted in more than $4 million for equipment and manpower. Meranti said he can walk through the fire station and pointed out nearly everything that has been paid for with grants.
"I don't know if it's because we're on like an island in North Berkshire or what, but we work very well together, we have good people involved all around," he said. "Mutual aid, we go mutual aid now more than ever to these smaller communities because it's tough to staff firefighters during the day in the volunteer department so we're helping them out more than we ever did."
North Adams became the first department in the region to regularly carry Narcan and automated external defibrillators
. Its role has expanded beyond fighting just fires and the number of medical calls it goes on has increased.
"We've taken on a lot of new tasks. We've learned active shooter training. Who would have thought in the fire service that I'd be buying bulletproof vest for firefighters but we were the first department in the area to embrace the active shooter training," he said. "Anything I threw out to my guys ... they jumped right in and learned what they have to learn."
Five firefighters are also on the county technical rescue team, with the department aiding in at least a half-dozen hiker rescues a year. One of the first grants Meranti wrote was for a decontamination unit
that's stored at the former hospital campus and drilled on every year. He's pushed for professionalizing the department through training and certification.
He does regret not getting to the point of at least having a new fire station or public safety building on paper.
The fire chief plays down his role but his contributions were honored in 2015
with the Northeast States Emergency Consortium 2015 Massachusetts Emergency Manager of the Year Award. The recognition of his service had followed several years of managing high-profile incidents, from Tropical Storm Irene, to the collapse of the critical communications towers, a mercury spill at a local school, significant power outages and a brush fire in Clarksburg State Forest that took days to bring under control.
"I accepted it, on behalf of everyone, because of that, it's really a team effort up here, it really is a great team that we have going forward and I hope that you know the next emergency manager fire chief continues on with them," he said.
Bernard said what Meranti and others have built in regional cooperation has "been a tremendous asset over the last eight or nine months because this is a team that spent almost 20 years building those relationships and building them in ways that other communities have have had to learn on the fly."
Meranti said the "no borders approach to emergency management" ensured that everyone had a seat at the table at these larger-scale incidents. Each department — fire, police, EMS — have their specific roles but bringing everyone together helps "when you don't know what you don't know."
"We have some people in the COVID operation center right now that have been tremendous assets to us through this whole process," he said.
Meranti, a graduate of McCann Technical School and a licensed electrician, joined the city as assistant wire inspector in 1987 and was named wire inspector five years later. But he was also a firefighter and captain on the Clarksburg Fire Department and began preparing himself through training and academics for the opportunity of advancement. He was appointed a reserve firefighter in North Adams in 2003 — just months before he was tapped for fire director.
The department was in turmoil at the time
Meranti investigating an apartment fire in 2014.
— there had been firings, suspensions and layoffs. Then Mayor John Barrett III said at the time, "he's walking in at a very difficult time, but I have great confidence in him."
Meranti had immediately replaced retiring Fire Director Craig Rougeau and also continued as wiring inspector for a number of years.
In 2018, the City Council reorganized the public safety structure, dispensing with the "director" positions and restoring the fire chief and police chief. Meranti, who'd always had difficulty explaining the term "director" to his peers, became the first fire chief in the city since the late Albert Denelli, who had been the first public safety commissioner.
His family has a long tradition in public service. His father was a North Adams police officer for more than 30 years, his mother was a schoolteacher, and his brother, William, is the building inspector; both his sons now work for the city — Mitchell is assistant wire inspector, the same post he'd had 33 years ago, and Matthew is a police officer.
Meranti choked up a little in talking about the support he'd received from both his professional community and his family. He's missed birthday parties and Christmases, and left family gatherings to deal with crises.
"Forgive me if I get emotional because I just, this isn't a job. It's a career, it's a lifestyle," he said. "When you're in this role as fire chief, if you don't have the support of your family behind you, you're not going to be successful."
He's looking forward to helping his son Matt build a new home and spending time with his wife, Tammy. His advice for the next chief is to get to know the city and "listen to your people."
Bernard said he expects to begin the search for a new chief once an updated job description can be completed.