Fire service is all in the family for South Portland's new chief

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Deputy Chief Jim Wilson has been named chief of the Fire Department. 

City Manager Jim Gailey confirmed Wilson’s appointment Monday, June 27. Wilson will replace interim Fire Chief Miles Haskell, who has been acting chief since Kevin Guimond left the job in November

Wilson, a 44-year-old Cape Elizabeth native, will soon become a third-generation fire chief – his father was chief in Cape, while his grandfather headed a department in Massachusetts.

“The fire service has been in my family for quite a while,” he said Tuesday. 

Wilson started as a call company member with the Cape department at the age of 17. He worked his way up to captain and lieutenant in Cape Elizabeth, while also volunteering for the Scarborough Fire Department and joining the staff of the South Portland department in 1996.

In 2006, Wilson was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in South Portland and, in 2012, he left Cape and Scarborough to devote his full attention to his new position as deputy fire chief in South Portland. 

As fire chief, Wilson will earn an annual salary of $88,000, Gailey said Tuesday. 

Mayor Tom Blake, who has known Wilson since he started with the Fire Department in the mid 1990s, said Wednesday that Wilson is an “excellent candidate, and I think he will do a superb job leading our Fire Department.”

“He’s very good at analyzing and finding the best answer (and) the best approach, and I think that’s very important in a fire chief to have that ability,” Blake said. 

Wilson is a Level 1 firefighter, a Level 2 certified chief officer, a certified forest firefighter and an open water diver. He also has a Merchant Marine master’s license from the Coast Guard and is a certified fire service instructor. 

Wilson was one of five candidates first vetted by the Civil Service Commission and interviewed by a panel that included Assistant City Manager Josh Reny, former city councilor Melissa Linscott, Portland Fire Chief David Jackson, Coast Guard Capt. Michael Baroody and Police Chief Ed Googins. 

The city’s Fire Department has nearly 70 employees, volunteers and full-time employees, Wilson said. One of his goals as the new fire chief will be working to diversify the employee population while maintaining the department’s track record. 

In November, the department received its Class 1 Insurance Services Office rating and ranked in the top 100 of more than 40,000 departments nationwide. The department was the first in Maine and New Hampshire to earn the rating, which is based on a fire department’s capabilities. The rating helps determine homeowners’ insurance premiums. 

Maintaining excellence is important, but “diversity is important because we obviously respond to our population, so we have to make sure we can relate to them,” he said. 

The department is getting “very well-trained” job applicants, but even that pool tends to be pretty homogeneous, he said. The department employs only two women full time, for example, and the number is only bumped to five when volunteer firefighters are included, he said. 

“Our incoming candidates don’t reflect the diversity that well,” he said. “That’s where we need to work, is how to reach out to (a wider variety) of people.”

In spite of the challenges, Wilson said he likes the idea that becoming a fire chief feels like family business. 

“I grew up going on calls with my dad,” he said. “The fire service has always been a kind of way of life. That’s the beauty of this job – it doesn’t really feel like a job.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.