AURORA | Aurora’s search for a new fire chief is over.
City management tapped Dallas Executive Assistant Fire Chief Fernando Gray to lead the department, wrapping up a lengthy search that started last year.
“I’m excited about the opportunity,” Gray said during a brief phone conversation Tuesday while he was between meetings in Dallas.
Gray will join the department in June.
Gambill Whitsitt, 2, and his younger brother Gates Whitsitt, 5 months, are photographed in a fire truck with the help of Assistant Chief Fernando Gray by mom Jessica Whitsitt during a tour of the City of Dallas Fire Station No. 27 Thursday December 10, 2015. Gray was named Aurora's new fire chief this week. (Ron Baselice/The Dallas Morning News)
From left, Assistant Chief Norman Seals, Assistant Chief Daniel Salazar, Assistant Chief Fernando Gray and Assistant Chief Tommy Tine wait for the ribbon cutting ceremony to start at the City of Dallas Dallas Fire Station No. 27 Thursday December 10, 2015. Gray was named Aurora's new fire chief this week. (Ron Baselice/The Dallas Morning News)
City Manager Skip Noe said in a statement announcing Gray’s hiring that he is the “right person with the right skills” for the city’s top fire job.
“His extensive experience leading a large organization and serving a complex community makes him a good fit for this dynamic city,” Noe said.
Gray has more than 20 years of fire service, the city said, and has spent his entire career in Dallas. According to the statement, Gray’s appointment must be ratified by the city council and is subject to a full background check. His annual salary will be $160,000 plus benefits.
Gray said one of the biggest challenges facing fire departments around the country is how they deal with an increasingly high volume of medical calls, which today far outpace fire calls.
“Fire departments must be dynamic in developing innovative approaches to managing the increasing EMS demand for service,” he said in an email.
In Aurora, officials have tried a variety of options to tackle those calls — which, while numerous, don’t always require the sort of heavy fire equipment that fire calls do. The efforts include specialized medical trucks with just two firefighters who respond to calls who don’t require firefighting equipment.
Gray said he wanted to be a firefighter since he was a young boy growing up in Dallas and even visited the local firehouse regularly as a child.
“Service to others is something that has always given me personal gratification,” he said.
The firefighters’ union, the Aurora Firefighters Protective Association, said they look forward to Gray taking the helm.
“He is a smart man and seems up to the challenge. We welcome him with open arms,” Dave Hamam, the union’s vice president, said in an email.
But Hamam said the union was frustrated with city leaders who he said didn’t involve the firefighters enough in the process.
“In our panel interviews, we were not allowed to ask questions of our choosing, rather questions given to us by city management. It feels as though city management asked for our feedback simply so they can say they made this decision with our input,” Hamam said.
Lori MacKenzie, a spokeswoman for the city manager’s office, said in an email the city offered employees several opportunities to be heard during the search, including visits by officials leading the hiring to local fire stations and using the results of an employee survey to craft the qualifications for the new chief.
“We had more employee involvement in this selection process than we’ve ever had before,” she said.
The union wasn’t allowed to interview other candidates because the list of non-finalists is not public, she said.
MacKenzie said it is the widely recognized best practice to use pre-determined questions for interviews, and when the union asked for a second seat on the interview panel the city gave them one.
The finalists also had a three-hour meet-and-greet where employees were allowed to ask any question they wanted, she said.
“It has been our desire and intent from the very beginning to create a robust process that was inclusive because we do value our employees,” MacKenzie said. “We are pleased with the outcome and are very excited to have Fernando Gray join the Aurora team.”
The city announced last month that Noe had narrowed the search to Gray and Seattle Assistant Fire Chief Jay Hagen.
The city hired firm CPS-HR to conduct a national search for retired Chief Mike Garcia’s replacement and opened the application process late last year.
The application period ended in early January and the company, which the city paid $24,000 for the search, started screening applicants.
Gray was a finalist for the chief job in Dallas last year, and for the same job in Plano, Texas, the year before that.
According to the Dallas Morning News, there were some nepotism concerns surrounding Gray taking the top job at the Dallas department. His brother-in-law is also a firefighter there and the city has rules barring people from supervising a relative.
The city eventually tapped the chief of Round Rock, Texas, to take the post.
Aurora’s new chief will take over a department that is set to grow as the department builds three new fire houses in the coming years.
With the population growth on the city’s eastern and northern edges, the city is planning to start construction on three new firehouses by 2018.
One firehouse will be a brand new Station No. 16 and will be built near the under-construction Gaylord Rockies Hotel in northeast Aurora, near Denver International Airport.
The other two will replace current stations. One will replace Station No. 5, which is on Buckley Road just south of East Colfax Avenue.
The other will replace Station No. 15, which is located in a residential house in the Murphy Creek subdivision.
To staff the new stations, the department added five new firefighters last year and plans to add five more in 2017 and 2018. Those 15 will make up the 15 new firefighters the new stations needs when they come online.