Ala. Chief Embroiled in Fire Truck Bid Controversy Quits

Sept. 18, 2013
Decatur's fire chief says his decision to quit after 13 months on the job has nothing to do with a used fire truck bid battle.

Sept. 18--Amid controversy over bid specifications on a firetruck, Decatur Fire and Rescue Chief Darwin Clark will leave his job at the end of the month to draw retirement pay from public employment.

Clark, 53, said Tuesday he is leaving to work for a Birmingham insurance company, calling the move "largely a financial decision." He declined to identify the company.

He has been fire chief only 13 months, but said it "was time for a change," citing 22 years at Decatur Fire and Rescue and a total of 29 in the state retirement system.

Clark and Mayor Don Kyle said his departure is not related to a Decatur Daily report on bid specifications for a firetruck that culminated in barbs with councilmen at Monday's City Council meeting.

Council members questioned Clark over bid specs that almost precisely matched a truck that had been parked at Fire and Rescue Station 7 for more than a month before bids were advertised. No other bids were received. Councilman Billy Jackson asked the mayor to investigate the bid process.

"This has nothing to do with that," Clark said of leaving the position. "This has been in the works for a while."

Clark took control of the department in 2012 in the midst of considerable strife. Previous Fire Chief Charlie Johnson came under scrutiny last year when firefighters and lieutenants in the non-union Decatur Firefighters Association accused him of poor leadership that jeopardized public safety.

"I don't want to be critical of the guy who was in here before me, but the fire department lacked direction," Clark said. "It was a kind of haphazard approach to managing."

Firefighters agreed.

"When he came in, department morale was low. We didn't really have a vision," Lt. Danny Engle of Station 5 said. "He came in and intervened and tried to make sure we were focused on the needs of the people."

Clark worked with Goodyear Mills and Lawrence County Hospital before starting with Decatur Fire and Rescue in 1991. He eventually became coordinator for emergency management services. He was fire marshal from 2004 to August 2012, and has been fire chief since.

Battalion Chief and Fire Marshal Jason Jones said Clark has been good for the department.

"He's a person who cares about doing the job right," Jones said. "He's always been open to listen. He goes the extra mile."

Clark said he has enjoyed working for Kyle and the City Council, although he is frustrated by Kyle's proposal to freeze merit increases for fire and other city personnel.

Clark will retire with an annual salary of about $84,760.

He said participation in department programs has risen, including people helping out with programs around the stations and training.

"We've basically transformed the training center in the last 17 months," he said.

Clark said he tried to fill firefighter downtime with activities, including training and physical fitness, so morale would not suffer.

"Firefighters don't want to sit around the station. They want to do something," Clark said. "The challenge is you have to have activities for them, more than just the fire call. That means training and conditioning, things that keep them energized through the day."

Kyle said he is sorry to see Clark go.

"Darwin has spent over 30 years in the firefighting business and had flirted with retirement a couple times in the last few years," Kyle said. "We hate to lose him."

Kyle said he'd "keep his cell number handy for when I'd like his advice."

Jones said Tuesday that Clark had not yet made an announcement to the fire department about his retirement.

"Working with him has been good," Jones said. "He pushes us to meet the needs of the public and of the department. He wants us to focus on the needs of the people."

Kyle said the process for hiring a new chief begins immediately.

"Ken Smith and I will send the job description to council members (today)," Kyle wrote in an email Tuesday.

He said the council must decide whether to hire internally or open the job to outsiders.

"If a job description change is requested, it will have to go before the personnel committee first, and, if approved there, come back for council approval. This would delay the process," he wrote. "I think the description is a good one, but review ahead of posting eliminates questions later that could cloud the waters, so to speak."

Jones said he hopes the next fire chief comes from within the department, which he said would help with continuity.

"The leadership is there within the department," Jones said. "I don't think we have to look outside."

Jones said he was not looking forward to the political back-and-forth as a new chief is chosen.

The department operates on a $9 million annual budget with 125 employees across eight fire stations and the Flint training center.

Eric Fleischauer can be reached at 256-340-2435 or [email protected].

Copyright 2013 - The Decatur Daily, Ala.

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