Michigan Chief Hanging up White Helmet

March 9, 2013
Fire Chief Sean Gunnery is taking early retirement to save Harper Woods money.

HARPER WOODS - Fire Chief Sean Gunnery is a hometown boy who grew up part of the Harper Woods family, a Harper Woods Little Leaguer, and then dedicated almost 21 years to keeping his town safe. He said it won't be an easy day when he has to say goodbye later this month, as he is taking an early retirement at the age of 47 to save the financially strapped city money.

"It's going to be emotional; my last day's going to be emotional, no doubt about it," Gunnery said.

"It's been an honor to serve the city of Harper Woods," he said. "I was a Harper Woods Little Leaguer. I was a Harper Woods boy. I guess, in my heart, I always will be."

His career in Harper Woods started as a firefighter paramedic and he worked his way up to the top position in the department, which he has held for the last eight years.

When he started in the department, he didn't realize the impact that answering the call to help those he knew as a child and those he loved and admired would have on him over the years.

"You might have to work on rescuing someone that you've known all your life, and that's happened on several occasions," he said. "It can be a very emotional thing."

Not only can it be emotional to rescue those people; it can be even tougher when they don't make it. Gunnery has had to tackle those situations, as well.

He's been on duty or dealt with the loss of some of his childhood heroes during his time in the department.

"We lost Bob Comfort," Gunnery recalls. "He was my high school baseball coach. That was heartbreaking."

He also remembers when Ben Nicholich died years ago.

"He was Father Baseball here," Gunnery said. "He had passed away from a heart attack on one of my duty days."

"The fatal fire that we had on Roscommon - I grew up with that family," Gunnery said. "That was one of the most heartbreaking days of my career."

Gunnery, a married father of two, understood the need for the city to cut costs, and he went into a mutual agreement with City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk to end his career with Harper Woods earlier than he would have in better economic times.

"Department heads are the highest salaried employees (and) I'm one of the few department heads left here," Gunnery said.

While leaving is tough, he said one of the things he'll miss the most after he walks out the doors one last time will be the camaraderie among police officers and firefighters.

"When you choose a career like a police officer or firefighter, it's not a job. It's a lifestyle. I think we all share that connection. I just feel like they are two of the most noblest professions on the planet."

His fellow firefighters and others in the city are being supportive of Gunnery as he prepares to go.

"I'm getting a lot of handshakes," he said.

Gunnery cross-trained as a police officer in 2010, so he can do both police and fire duties. His immediate plans don't include living the retiree's lifestyle of leisure activities and hobbies, but he does hope to put his skills to work in a new role.

"I feel like I still have a lot to give to the public safety," Gunnery said. Before leaving, Gunnery wanted to recognize the Grosse Pointe departments, the city's mutual-aid partners, for all their help over the years fighting fires and responding to the needs in Harper Woods.

"For the last few years, it's been a very trying time," Gunnery said. "I was always very appreciative of the effort they put forth when they came over to help us fight fire."

Skotarczyk said this agreement had nothing to do with wanting to get rid of Gunnery, who he said has done a good job for the city.

Others also praised Gunnery's work as a city employee and administrator in the Fire Department. "He has served us well for many, many years," Mayor Ken Poynter said.

This move will help save money because the city has plans to pare down that role to something at a significantly reduced salary and possibly part-time, as the city moves into a different direction with public safety matters.

Under the current City Charter, the city has to have someone in the chief's position, so even if they hire someone as the director of public safety, they have to have someone in the fire chief role, as well.

"That position that will be filled will not be filled anywhere near the contract that exists today," Skotarczyk said.

The City Council approved the agreement at its March 4 meeting. According to the agreement, Gunnery was able to purchase service credits by paying 5 percent of his base salary for an amount up to four years.

There was some talk, however, about offering him health benefits if he moves on to another full-time job that offers those benefits. Mayor Pro Tem Cheryl Costantino commented about this possibility, since he is so young, and wondered if the city could put in the agreement that they would offer benefits, as long as he is not eligible elsewhere.

"This is an ongoing legacy cost that we have," Costantino said. "This is a considerable expense.

"He could have a full career somewhere else," she said in consideration of his age.

The problem with that stipulation, however, is that the city didn't put that into any of the other agreements for those who recently took early retirements. Poynter said that would be "singling out one person."

Council member Charles Flanagan said that Gunnery earned those benefits that were promised to him for "his many years of service - dedicated service." He said it would be penalizing him not to offer them.

"He is retiring by purchasing his last few years out of his own money," Flanagan added.

"I don't think we're giving him any more than he earned, at this point," he said.

Costantino said that it wasn't anything personal to Gunnery. She was simply concerned about more early retirements at young ages as an ongoing issue.

"This should be done for all early retirees," Costantino said.

"He deserves health insurance," she said. "I'm just concerned about our long-term legacy costs."

After being told Gunnery was the last in the line of early retirements, which were offered as a way to cut costs for the city, Costantino said that made less of a pressing matter for her.

Call Staff Writer April Lehmbeck at (586) 498-1043.

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