Volunteer Chief of the Year Tim Wall has his finger on the pulse of his community.
Some people are born into their professions. Tim Wall is one of those people. He still works the Connecticut farm that his family has operated for generations. And he is a third-generation firefighter, having followed his grandfather, father and two brothers into the service. One night a long time ago, the lines intersected.
"There was a fire on one of the dairy farms in the area, and afterward my father — who was a dairy farmer himself and an elected official in the town — decided that it was time to form a volunteer fire department," said Wall, who today is chief of the North Farms Volunteer Fire Department in Wallingford, Conn., and FIRE CHIEF's 2010 volunteer chief of the year.
Wall's brothers, twins who are older by a year, participated in North Farms' junior firefighter program as teenagers and eventually became firefighters. Wall started to follow them to the fire station and instantly became hooked. He said that such a family connection is common in the fire service, particularly in the volunteer sector.
However, life on a dairy farm also influenced Wall's decision to get involved in the fire service. "Things happen on a farm," he said. "Things catch on fire and people get injured — especially when you have six kids on a farm — and EMS sometimes has to get involved. I always was impressed by their professionalism, the care they provided, their enthusiasm and their heart."
Wall followed the same path as his brothers, first participating in the junior firefighter program and then becoming a volunteer with North Farms. He took training classes provided by the town of Wallingford — North Farms operates under the umbrella of the town's fire department — and attended both the Connecticut Fire Academy and the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.
In addition to performing his duties as fire chief, Wall holds down a job as a Connecticut state marshal, serving legal papers in advance of court proceedings. In addition to his regular turn at the family farm, he helps out at a local mortuary — moving caskets, parking cars, whatever it takes — and is active in various civic and fraternal organizations. He also serves as the logistics chair for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, an event in which teams of participants walk or run around a track for up to 24 hours to raise money. Wall also donates time to the Wallingford Wishing Well, which provides support to sick and underprivileged children in the town.
Somehow, Wall manages to work sleep into the equation. Or so he says. “Some days it's not easy. I've become known for my 2:30 a.m. e-mails,” he conceded.
The fact that he is able to do all of this, and do it all very well, says much about the man. Similarly, the things he chooses for his causes also offer a glimpse into Wall's character, as does his ability to draw others in and eventually get them to share his passion. So says Johnna Schlosser who would know, after all, because she has been friends with Wall since they were first-graders. The Relay for Life stands as a prime example, she said.
“Tim started the relay in our town and was its first chair,” Schlosser said. “I'm a cancer survivor, and because of that he got me involved. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but 12 years later, I'm still at it.”
Though she's seen it over and over, Schlosser still marvels at Wall's ability to rally the troops, regardless of the cause. “He's unique,” she said. “He gets people on board and, before they know it, they're part of something big.”
It's a sentiment that's shared by Jamie DiPace, chief of the Avon (Conn.) Fire Department, who met Wall 15 years ago at anVolunteer and Combination Officers Section meeting in Florida. He said that Wall has a natural ability to build consensus, something that's not easy to do at VCOS meetings.
“These guys are all fire chiefs, and they all have their own ideas as to how things should be done,” DiPace said. “It's sometimes amazing to watch.”
Schlosser isn't surprised that Wall always seems able to juggle everything both gracefully and graciously, without ever becoming flustered, almost with ease. “He's very organized, which is a function of being raised on a farm,” she said. “You're trained to get up at a certain hour and do your duties.”
Interestingly, a cause doesn't have to necessarily resonate with Wall on a personal level for him to get involved, according to Schlosser.
“Anything that's community-oriented, Tim Wall is there,” she said. “He has the pulse of the community. It wouldn't surprise me if he became mayor of Wallingford someday.”
First Things First
Higher office will have to wait for Wall. There simply is too much to do right now for the volunteer fire service. Number one on the list of things to do is fund-raising. Because North Farms serves as a company within Wallingford's combination department, it does receive money from the town for essential equipment, including personal protection equipment, and basic training. But North Farms is on its own for such things as advanced training, and even uniforms.
Wall believes that elected officials are supportive and respective of the fire service, but he also understands that they have a tough job, one that is made tougher when the economy goes into the tank and tax revenues dry up. There's only so much money and fundraising becomes essential to providing equipment and training to volunteers.
“That means part of my job is to organize ziti dinners and Christmas-tree sales,” Wall said.
It may seem like a small thing, but Wall fervently believes that uniforms for his firefighters are essential, in order to instill in them the sense that — even though it's a part-time gig — volunteer firefighting is a profession. According to Wall, looking the part is integral to buying into the notion. It's vitally important, too, that the surrounding community also see them in that light, he said.
“You don't want everyone walking around in shorts and flip-flops,” Wall said. “And when they walk into someone's home, you want the person to think that the town's fire service is OK and is something that's worth their support.”
Though he wants his troops to exude professionalism at every turn, Wall fully recognizes that they are individuals who have lives and jobs outside of the fire service, and needed to be treated accordingly. The area most acutely affected by this reality is training.
“You have to be creative and flexible in terms of training,” Wall said. “You might have to schedule training around their jobs and family commitments. That's a challenge.”
Another important challenge is getting everyone in the chain of command believing in the department's mission, goals and objectives. The key to meeting this challenge, and to improving the efficiency of the department's operations, is to solicit input from all members, according to Wall.
“There are two important reasons for this,” he said. “First, the volunteer service is membership-driven. Second, I know that as a chief, I can't do it all myself, and I don't know it all. So you need your officers and personnel to get involved in the decision-making process.”
Indeed, Wall is of the belief that mining the collective expertise and talents of a volunteer department's personnel is a crucial job for the chief.
“I don't have all the answers, but I sure know where to go to get them,” Wall said. “People come to the fire service from all sorts of different trades. For instance, when we have to take out a window, we have two guys who are carpenters. We also have a plumber who knows how to turn off a pipe. It's essential to tap the knowledge that exists within your personnel.”
Wall exudes a humility that seems counter-intuitive considering how high he has risen in the fire service and how well he is regarded as a result of his advocacy work on the state and national levels.
“In no way do I believe that I am the best volunteer fire chief that there is,” he said. “I'm not afraid to seek advice from my colleagues. There's always somebody out there who already has gone through what you're going through.”
However, those who know him well insist that his “there's no ‘I’ in team” persona is genuine. Steve Alsup, a deputy chief with the Wallingford Fire Department, is one of those people.
“He reaches out for help when he needs it,” Alsup said. “That's one of his strengths.”
Wallingford uses North Farms as its rapid-intervention unit for structure fires in certain areas of the town. When that occurs, Wall is tasked with running Wallingford's accountability board and assisting the shift commander in keeping track of firefighters at the scene. (In Wallingford's hierarchy, a volunteer chief is a notch below the shift commander.)
Some volunteer chiefs might let their egos get in the way of performing this vital task, thinking it is beneath them, but not Wall, said Rich Heidgerd, another Wallingford deputy chief.
“Some people think manning the board is a menial task, and they do a lousy job as a result,” Heidgerd said. “But when bad things happen, you hope they take the job seriously — and Tim does.”
Perhaps that's because Wall considers the firefighters who serve Wallingford — really, all firefighters — as part of his extended family. And family looks out for each other. It's a lesson that one learns as one of six children growing up on a farm. “Tim's family still is very tight,” childhood-friend Schlosser said.
Wall confirms that family is very important to him. Indeed, he believes the level of support his family has provided throughout his career is the secret to his success.
“My family has made many sacrifices for me to be able to do what I do as a fire chief, and to be active on the state and national levels to bring attention to volunteer fire service concerns,” he said. “You miss a lot of family events or you're often late to them.”
Such support is especially valuable after a particularly bad day on the job. “It's good to be able to talk with them about a bad car wreck, or a suicide,” Wall said. “It's not all glory being the chief.”
Perhaps not. But Wall can't think of doing anything else in the fire service. In fact, he said that he's never thought about becoming a career firefighter. “You see a lot of sadness in this job and you need time away from that,” he said.
But not too much time.
“This is the greatest job in the world,” he said. “It's been an awesome ride.”