After more than three years without a permanent leader, Mayor Sandy Stimpson has a fire chief in place. With municipal elections looming, the Mobile City Council unanimously confirmed Mark Sealy as Mobile Fire-Rescue chief at Tuesday’s regular meeting.
Councilors had only positive things to say about the MFRD veteran with more than 25 years of experience.
“I am really pleased to see this item on our agenda,” Councilwoman Bess Rich said. “The men and women of the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department deserve a chief who is a visionary, but who also understands the system because they’ve come from the system. Someone who understands the system is an ideal selection.”
Sealy, a Mobile native, said his experience in many different areas of the department will help “bridge the gap” between personnel and management. That belief was part of a strategic plan Sealy submitted as part of the fire chief application process. He was nominated by Mayor Stimpson on Friday, May 12.
Councilman C.J. Small congratulated Sealy, and asked that he focus on bringing more diversity, including women, into the department. Bringing in more diversity starts with better community outreach through recruitment, Sealy responded. Recruitment is an area where the department could improve, he said.
Sealy has spoken to new recruits in the past who said not enough people know about available jobs in the department. To rectify this, he wants to establish a recruiting team for the department. The team would “get the word out on how great the job is,” he said.
While Sealy stopped short of saying the MFRD had a morale problem, he did note that more than three years without a confirmed chief at the top can produce fractures in the organization.
“There’s no problem,” he said. “Morale could always be better.”
Dewayne Patrick, president of the Mobile Firefighters Association, said having a chief in place should immediately help morale.
“When you don’t have a leader in a department in a city the size of Mobile, issues arise and nobody can fix them,” Patrick said. “It felt like a spiraling drain. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
While he believes recruiting could be better, Sealy said it’s too early to determine if the department should hire more firefighters. He said he’d take a look at hiring and study the department’s allocation of resources when he takes office.
Patrick believes the department needs to hire as many as 75 to 100 new firefighters in order to fix safety issues he feels is a top priority.
“We need to hire,” he said. “We’re losing people left and right … and we need to keep up with it.”
Hiring more firefighters would end what Patrick calls “riding short,” or staffing trucks with three firefighters instead of four. The administration has previously said it has “right-sized” the department to get firefighters where they need to be in a more efficient way.
The issues with riding short and with brownouts — where stations are temporarily taken offline — began after the city cut overtime, Patrick said. Hiring more firefighters would eliminate the need for both strategies.
Sealy was selected with help of a committee comprising Public Safety Director James Barber, Bloomberg I-Team Executive Director Jeff Carter, Montgomery Fire Chief Miford Jordan and local management consultant Dan Lumpkin.
Lumpkin said the selection process was thorough. The group started with 13 local applicants and pared it down to five finalists, based upon the strategic plans each candidate submitted. From there, the committee conducted face-to-face interviews with each finalist before deciding who Stimpson should nominate.
For Lumpkin, a chief candidate would have to show strong leadership in order to be selected.
“Leadership is critical,” Lumpkin said. “We were looking for background and experience, someone who’d walked a mile in the shoes of those doing the job.”
Lumpkin said Sealy was selected because of his leadership skills.
Now that he’s confirmed, however, Sealy will have to move from his home in Fairhope. By law, Mobile’s fire chief and police chief must live within the city limits. Sealy was made aware of this stipulation before agreeing to take the job, city spokeswoman Laura Byrne said Monday afternoon.
According to probate records and Google Maps, Sealy’s home is about a 39-minute drive from Central Fire Station in downtown Mobile. While there is no time frame for his relocation, he said he and his family would be looking to move this summer.
Barber, now public safety director, moved to Mobile from Baldwin County after he was confirmed as police chief in 2013. At the time, Barber told councilors he would voluntarily move back to Mobile. Former Public Safety Director Richard Landolt also moved to Mobile from Fairhope after he was approved to the city post. He resigned early this year and Barber was appointed to replace him.
Lumpkin, whose office is in Fairhope, said he was aware of the “rule” that the city’s police and fire chiefs have to live within the city, but said he’d personally be in favor of lifting it. He added each of the candidates were alerted of the rule before a selection was made.
Prior to joining MFRD, Sealy served in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science, a paramedic license and numerous technician-level certificates, among which is the Alabama Smoke Divers certificate, which Stimpson said is only held by one-tenth of 1 percent of firefighters in the state. Sealy is currently enrolled in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Since Stimpson has been in office, Mobile Fire-Rescue Department has had two interim chiefs — Randy Smith and Billy Pappas — but neither had been put up for confirmation. Administration officials previously confirmed a belief that neither candidate had enough votes from the City Council to win confirmation.