The seven career firefighters who have applied to become the next chief of the Columbus Fire Division have been interviewed by a three-person panel assembled by Mayor Michael B. Coleman.
The panel will discuss the applicants' strengths and weaknesses and forward its findings to Coleman and Safety Director Mitchell J. Brown.
The salary for the new chief, who will oversee a $217 million budget and roughly 1,550 firefighters, will be negotiated, according to the city Department of Public Safety. Ned Pettus Jr., who retired this spring after 10 years as chief, was paid about $151,000 a year.
The Dispatch reviewed each candidate's personnel file and disciplinary file, if he had one. Each candidate also was interviewed.
James R. Cannell Jr.
Cannell, 45, joined the Fire Division in 1989. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1995, captain in 2001, battalion chief in 2007 and deputy chief last year. He manages emergency services, allocates manpower for all battalions and oversees one of the three firefighting shifts.
Cannell said that as chief, he would retool staffing of paramedics to be more efficient, given a decline in fire calls and an increase in EMS runs; devise a five-year plan to address vulnerability to domestic and international threats; and build "a strong legacy of talent" within the division.
Nine years ago, Cannell was disciplined for disobeying a superior's orders by taking a rescue tool for use on one of his station's trucks. Cannell said he borrowed the equipment after repeated requests that he sent up the chain of command went unanswered.
The firefighters union and community leaders praised Cannell for his actions. An internal investigation found that he was insubordinate.
Cannell acknowledges that he made mistakes but stands by his decision to push the issue, noting that Jaws of Life tools are now standard lifesaving equipment citywide.
Karry L. Ellis
Ellis, 57, joined the division in 1980. He's an assistant chief overseeing the fire-prevention bureau, which includes fire investigations, fire inspections and community relations. Ellis became assistant chief in 2001.
He said that as chief, he would push for the creation of an inner-city youth-mentoring program to introduce the idea of firefighting as a worthwhile career and, over time, increase diversity in the division.
He said he also would propose a streamlined process for implementing creative suggestions from firefighters and a "diversion program" that would allow first-time violators of division policy to complete community service instead of being disciplined.
Ellis has been the subject of seven professional-standards investigations arising out of complaints. He was cleared in every case.
Firefighters who make a one-time mistake shouldn't have it hanging over their heads forever, he said.
O'Connor, 47, joined the division in 1989. He's an assistant chief overseeing the training bureau, which handles both the education of new firefighters and the continuing development of experienced ones.
He has operated businesses apart from the division since 1997 and said he would bring his years of operational experience to the job as chief. "The person needs to be a business manager," O'Connor said.
At the training bureau, O'Connor eliminated the need for $491,000 in overtime pay by switching to an online system for the first 11 weeks of paramedic training, he said.
He spent 10 years as a battalion chief before being promoted to deputy chief and assistant chief in 2011. The back-to-back promotions were the result of a deferred-retirement program that caused a wave of firefighters to retire last year.
Gregory A. Paxton
Paxton, 59, joined the division in 1981 and is its executive officer. As second-in-command, he assists the chief in overall operations, serves as the division's chief disciplinarian and oversees division recruitment.
He has held the rank of chief -- either battalion, deputy or assistant -- for 18 years.
With a budget of more than $217 million, the division demands leaders with business skills comparable to the private sector, he said.
Paxton said he would "preserve the national prominence that the Division of Fire has obtained under Ned's leadership."
"The executive staff is tremendously talented," he said. "The leader's responsibility in this case is to harness all that talent."
He said his priorities would including increasing diversity and building stronger partnerships with community organizations.
Kent C. Searle
Searle, 53, joined the division in 1983. He's an assistant chief overseeing the support-services bureau, which includes the dispatch center and the maintenance shop.
He served in leadership roles through three major transitions: creation of the new dispatch center in 1993; the focus on terrorism preparedness after Sept. 11, 2001, as hazardous-materials captain; and the startup of a computerized staff-scheduling system in 2009.
As chief, Searle said, he would push for new ideas and experiment with new developments in firefighting. The division often waits for new ideas to be adopted in departments in other cities before bringing them to Columbus, he said.
"There's a good side to that," he said. "But we want to be a leader in the country."
Like O'Connor, Searle spent years as a battalion chief before being promoted quickly to deputy chief and assistant chief in 2011 after a group of retirements that year.
David J. Walton
Walton, 48, joined the division in 1985. He is an assistant chief overseeing the bureau of emergency services, which, in addition to firefighting operations, includes emergency medical services and special operations.
Walton was awarded a fire-safety commendation and a fire-chief distinguished-service award for his leadership during the Sept. 14, 2008, windstorm that generated 1,600 calls for service in 24 hours -- more than four times the number of calls in a typical day.
He deflected the credit to the rank and file.
"I may have orchestrated the work, but I didn't do it," he said.
The division of the future will need to be agile and prepared to work in an "all-hazard environment," he said.
The division must establish and maintain ties with other agencies, including civilian agencies and organizations such as school districts and universities.
"You need to seek out and forge relationships," he said.
David K. Whiting
Whiting, 51, joined the division in 1987. He is deputy chief overseeing the special-operations unit, which includes the heavy-rescue companies, dive team, bomb squad and hazardous-materials team.
He was promoted to lieutenant in 1992, captain in 1998, battalion chief in 2002 and deputy chief last year. He also has served as one of the division's public-information officers.
Whiting said his strengths include experience in planning disaster responses, a reputation for community service, and a background in leading multi-agency efforts.
"We have some of the smartest people around," he said. "You have to be able to listen to what those people say. Sometimes, decisions get made in silos, and I think that hurts an organization."
He also called for greater diversity in the ranks.
"We're very multicultural in the city of Columbus," he said. "
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