Fire Chief Czerwinski explains the Fire Department's needs during budget talks in 2016.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — There is a saying around the firehouse that some firefighters wouldn't walk two blocks to a fire if they were on vacation.
Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski, however, would race the trucks there.
One time he was speeding to the scene of a fire riding in the back of an open cab truck, holding on to just a bar. Now he usually shows up in an SUV, shortly after the first units have.
As age 63 bears down, that race to the fire is becoming much more difficult.
"It gets old and tiresome to get out of bed at 4 o'clock in the morning, or 8:30 on a Sunday morning and you have other things planned for the day, and all of a sudden you've got to change those plans," Czerwinski said.
After 32 years with the city's Fire Department and 45 years total in the field, the chief is retiring. He will march in the Fourth of July Parade with the department one final time and that'll be his final day.
"It's been a great career. It's been a job that I've loved. I enjoyed my career in the fire service since my days as a volunteer firefighter," Czerwinski said.
Czerwinski grew up across the border in New York's Hudson Valley. There were a few volunteer firefighters in his neighborhood who encouraged him to sign on.
"It was just something to help out the community. Some people like being on planning boards or zoning boards or being a Pop Warner football coach or a Little League coach, something like that. I just saw this as a good opportunity to help support my community," Czerwinski said.
"Like a duck to water, I just fell into it. I've enjoyed it. I've been teaching, instructing, working with other fire departments. I've taught the fire science program at Berkshire Community College, at Greenfield Community College, and later on, became a coordinator for that program."
He volunteered for 10 years before the medical supply company he was working for offered him a management position in Pittsfield in 1983. The city has a paid department and Czerwinski wanted to stay involved firefighting in someway so he took the Civil Service exam. He got hired as a firefighter in the Longmeadow Fire Department.
He commuted from Pittsfield to Longmeadow for about 10 months, weighing heavily whether he wanted to move closer to the job or stay in Pittsfield. Then he got the call: Pittsfield was interested. It was a bigger department. It had more career opportunity. He had the title of private then and the future chief opted to sign onto Pittsfield.
His hire date was May 17, 1987.
With experience driving and pumping trucks, and stretching lines, Czerwinski said he had somewhat of an upper hand on the others in his class. He was given more opportunities quicker because of his prior experience. In 1992, he was promoted to lieutenant, and four or five years later to captain. As captain, Czerwinski headed training for the department based at the Peck's Road station.
He was promoted to deputy chief in 2003 and when Fire Chief James C. Sullivan Jr. retired, Czerwinski took over as chief on Jan. 17, 2010.
"Chiefs Duffy and Sullivan before me got us on the right track and my plan was to keep us moving forward," Czerwinski said.
He was appointed in a provisional capacity, similar to the police chief, as the mayor's office had issues with appointing department heads through Civil Service that wasn't resolved until recently. Czerwinski's technical title was "acting chief" for years despite being chief in reality.
"There were some concerns about appointing people to these positions for life so [former Mayor] Jim Ruberto never appointed me permanent. We had a test a couple of years later and Mayor [Daniel] Bianchi decided not to appoint me to the position, left me as provisional," Czerwinski said.
"But it really doesn't matter if you are provisional or permanent, you've got a job to do. You have to keep 90 other employees safe. That's my biggest role, to make sure everybody goes home at the end of the day. I don't want to go knock on a door and say your loved one is not coming home or that they are at the hospital."
The chief's position is much different from the days when Czerwinski had been riding on the back of a truck. While he still makes appearances at the scene, he said the chief's position is much more of a business job. He said the deputy chiefs are talented enough to handle the fire scenes.
"I've got great deputy chiefs that can handle the fires. In nine years there have only been a couple of instances when I came in and actually took over the fire and it was because the incident was just so complex that it needed an extra set of hands and eyes so I took command and put the deputy chief in command of another area," Czerwinski said.
"All of the deputy chiefs took the same tests and read the same books that I did. Our tactics, our strategies, are all going to be similar."
Sure Czerwinski does miss the firefighting and taking command at a scene. But, he's also embraced the leadership role, not just in the city, but in the county. Czerwinski has taken on many regional and statewide positions and said he is always looking for ways that the city can help beyond its borders.
Czerwinski with U.S. Rep. Richie Neal and Gene Dellea in 2013.
"We are looked at as the agency to respond in Berkshire County because we are the biggest and the most well equipped. As the leader of that group, we have to realize that we have that but we've got to be humble enough to step back and work with these groups, say how can we help you, what can we do to best serve your community?" Czerwinski said.
"Eventually at some point, there may be a move to regionalize these assets to cover these communities that can't get volunteers anymore."
He's particularly taken a strong role in hazardous materials and planning for large-scale disasters. He chairs the Central Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee. He's appointed to the statewide emergency response committee and is on the hazmat advisory board for the Department of Fire Services.
In those roles, there is a great focus on sharing resources and Czerwinski said large scale incidents can extend not just beyond town or county borders but over state borders as well.
He is currently serving on a committee looking for a new chief in Stockbridge, which has an aging demographic and some 70 percent of residences are second homes. Czerwinski said volunteer departments that make up most of the coverage is becoming harder and harder to sustain.
"We need to be looking out for each other. How can we provide services on a regional basis?" Czerwinski said.
"It is not an ego thing for us. We don't care whose fire it is. Fire has no recognition if the guy putting water on it is getting a paycheck or not getting a paycheck. The sooner that our own people and volunteers, if there is any animosity between those two groups, it's got to stop. We are all here to do the same job. We're not here to take over your job and the volunteers aren't here to take our jobs...
"Our job is to protect life and property. That's what we all signed up to do. So working together is what we need to do. If there is some way Pittsfield can support the outreaches of our territory, then let's talk. Let's do that."
Meanwhile, inside the city's border, Czerwinski said his primary goal is to keep his employees safe. A lot of that is keeping up with new techniques, training, and equipment. He noted changes over the years such as learning how to combat fires as more and more plastic material took the place of wood. He said it is not just spraying water on fire but understanding ventilation and toxins.
"Nowadays the plastics produce so much heat when they are burning, as well as toxic smoke, that it is important for our guys to understand that we need to wear our protective equipment," Czerwinski said. "We need to make sure we clean that stuff when we get done, for their health."
He said there is constantly new science, new technology, and new techniques for firefighters to be aware of and learn in order to make for a better department.
When asked about some of his most memorable experiences, Czerwinski said it is the most recent ones that stick in his mind while the previous incidents are pushed to the back.
"We've experienced a lot from a plane crash on Easter Sunday at the state forest years ago to probably one of my first million losses was a Crane & Co. warehouse fire we had in Downing Industrial Park. Right after I became chief, there was an incident on Bartlett Avenue, Deputy Mark Cancilla was in charge with it and it escalated into a three or four alarm fire because this building has so many hidden void spaces," Czerwinski said.
"But, the most memorable is the most recent. The double fatal we had on Bryan Street and then the triple fatal we just had last month. I ache for these people."
The chief said he wishes there was more of a focus on fire prevention in the city. He said with both fatal fires, there were no signs of functioning smoke alarms. He wants families to make sure smoke detectors are working, to have an escape plan, and to get out of the house immediately should there be a fire.
"A fire doubles in size every minute it is burning. The amount of damage that will occur if you try to fight that fire or delay calling 911, it is just going to become insurmountable and it is going to be tougher for us to fight the fire," Czerwinski said.
"Get out, call 911, get help on the way. I can't stress that enough. Property can be replaced, whether it is a car or a house, but lives can't."
The job isn't for everyone but for everyone who does it want it, they want it to help others, Czerwinski said.
"When we go out the door, somebody is having one of the worst days of their lives, simple as that. It may be a medical call. It may be a fire. It may just be a water problem or an electrical emergency. But to those people, it was truly an emergency and they called 911 for a reason. It was something beyond their control," the chief said.
And he praised his staff as being the same, saying the guys "truly love their job" in Pittsfield.
But, now, after all of those years, Czerwinski feels like it is time to move on. He said he thought about what else needs to be done and questioned whether he had the stamina to continue, and ultimately the decision was to pass on the next tasks to someone else.
"It's not just a job. It's a passion and that's important. You need to have somebody with drive, ambition, and passion because it is not just a job. You have to answer to 90-100 employees. You have to answer to the City Council. You have to answer to the mayor. You've got other organizations and agencies that look to you for guidance or looking to condemn you for some decision you've made," Czerwinski said. "I'm going to let somebody else have some fun."
There are three deputy chiefs and a number of captains who could potentially be interested in taking over. An assessment center will help find Czerwinski's successor.
"This position isn't about pulling hoses and putting on air packs and spraying water or anything. This is a true business perspective as a department head. You've got a budget, you've got a workforce, you've got a fleet of vehicles that require maintenance. There is a certain amount of mental strain just trying to juggle all of that, making sure we can move ahead," he said.
Judging the Wing Fling in 2012.
For teens considering joining volunteer services as Czerwinski had at 17 or those just curious about the profession, Czerwinski's advice is to become a paramedic.
"Most fire departments in the commonwealth of Massachusetts right now are only hiring paramedics," Czerwinski said. "If you truly want to get a career in the fire service, start off as a paramedic."
On Friday, Czerwinski will pin badges on five new firefighters. He had been advocating for years for the state Department of Fire Services to run a new-hire training academy in the western part of the state and this year the first recruit class from Pittsfield will be graduating in Springfield.
"I was such a big proponent of bringing that academy to Springfield. I felt it was important for us to get a class there and now we need to continue on with that process," Czerwinski said.
"I'm so excited about this. This will be a nice feather in my cap for going out the door."
They might not know it today, but those recruits could be the city's -- or maybe the region's -- fire chief in another three decades or so. By then, the profession and the region will likely be very different.
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