Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Fire Chief Confirmation: Blow-By-Blow

By Rick Outzen

Those attending the special Pensacola Council meeting on the confirmation of the city’s new fire chief must have felt they were watching a movie with an ending that was never in doubt. The spoiler alerts were everywhere.

Four city fire trucks were in the city hall’s parking lot. Citizens were handed out invitations to the swearing-in ceremony as they walked into the council chambers.

The meeting played out with few surprises. Fire Marshall David Allen was approved by a 5-3 vote of the council. Council members Larry Johnson, Brian Spencer, Andy Terhaar, P.C. Wu and Jewel Cannada-Wynn voted for approval.

The primary reasons for their approval were the firefighters in attendance and phone calls received in support of Allen.

When Councilman Andy Terhaar made the motion to confirm Allen, he asked the firefighters, many in uniform, to stand if they were there to support Mayor Ashton Hayward’s nominee.

He said to his fellow council members, “If you please, try to support Chief Allen and also know that these firemen really respect him. They do a great job, and I really believe he’s the right person for this job.”

In his second of the motion, Councilman P.C. Wu said he had received letters of support from the pastor of First Baptist Church and two former fire chiefs, Russell Dean and Frank Edwards.

“These are two people, former fire chiefs, that I would consider experts in the field, and they give Chief Allen glowing recommendations,” he said. “It even carries more weight to me since both of these gentlemen are retired.”

Wu added, “So when you have two people who have done the job, who aren’t under any political pressure, not saying anything except what they feel is the truth, well then it carries an awful lot of weight in my mind.”

The final spoiler alert was revealed when Council President Charles Bare asked Allen to come to the podium.

Mayor Hayward injected, “Council President, I don’t think tonight’s the night to… I know since May 12 you’ve had the opportunity to ask him questions.”

He added, “I think tonight’s about confirming, approving Chief Allen. So I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the citizens for you. I don’t think this is an inquisition.”

Allen remained in his seat, and Mayor Hayward explained why he wanted the fire marshal to be the fire chief.

“I think many of you have worked with David over the years. I know Councilman Wu and Councilwoman Myers probably longer than I have. The relationship David has, most importantly, is with the citizens of Pensacola, serving our great community for the number of years that he has,” he told the council.

“He’s the right man for the job. I know he’ll do an incredible job for our community and be proactive as he always has and continue to bring that leadership into the community,” said Mayor Hayward, “and I hope that you can confirm Chief Allen tonight.”

Bare, Councilwoman Sherri Myers, and Councilman Gerald Wingate expressed their concerns about Allen, but with the mayor’s refusal to allow his nominee to come to the podium, their questions could only be rhetorical.

“One of my questions to the mayor was, what’s changed between now and then to make him more eligible? “ said Bare. “Personally, I don’t really think a lot has other than the number one and number two are now gone.”

He said that Allen had been reprimanded for continually lobbying since 2011 to be the fire chief. Bare was also concerned with Allen’s lack of experience supervising employees.

“I think the least we could do is do a search to find the right fire chief, someone that maybe had some experience in a smaller town or something,” said Bare.

Myers objected to the mayor not allowing Allen to speak.

“The mayor said it would just be an inquisition,” she said. “I found that troubling because I think we just paid $65,000 for an inquisition to get rid of two fire chiefs, which was not necessary.”

Myers was referring to the three-month investigation of former Fire Chief Matt Schmitt and Deputy Fire Chief Joe Glover that led to the mayor firing both men because he “lost confidence” in their leadership.

Citizens and former firefighters came forward to speak on the behalf of Allen.

“He is a family man,” said attorney T.A. Shell. “I think that you can’t find a finer man. You can’t find a better family man. You can’t find a better professional.”

Retired Fire Captain Steve Bridwell debunked the idea of a national search.

“(The Firefighters) need a chief. Now you can appoint one tonight, and in a couple of years you can have a pick of anyone behind you who need that job,” he said. “You don’t need a national search. There’re good people right here. I don’t know why you can’t see it.”

The Firefighters Union president, Nate Elder, took offense at the comments made by Bare and Myers.

“We are proud of our department, and none of us appreciate the disrespect given to us tonight to all of our department in front of all who is here in attendance,” said Elder. “It is time to make this department great again. Like I said, we are proud of our city; we are proud of our department.”

Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Winn talked about how the last six months have been difficult, particularly because of the investigation of the former fire chiefs.  She said that a firefighter had assured that morale was good under Allen. A black firefighter told her that no racism existed in the department.

“Because the firefighters need support, I will support his confirmation as well,” she said.

Terhaar reiterated his belief that Allen’s support from the firefighters was important.

“The biggest thing I can see in this community is the support of the people that this new chief, Chief Allen, is going to be supervising,” he said.  “And that the most important thing to a chief is that the firemen underneath him respect him, and that they appreciate what he does and that they want him as their chief.”

He added, “We could probably go out and find a national search and get somebody out here from California to come. But I guarantee you he won’t gain the respect that Chief Allen has with all these people in this room.”

Councilman Gerald Wingate said that he believed firefighters would have come out in support of the former chiefs had the administration allowed it.

“I’m not going to be supporting this tonight,” he said. “I think the fire department needs strong leadership. I think the fire department is probably undermanned, which is one of the things that came out in that report.”

Wingate said, “I’m in support of a national search to get a strong fire chief here and also to build up the fire department to the level that it should be.”

Cannada-Wynn said it was the phone conversations with firefighters that convinced her to support Allen.

“Our best source of information is from the family of firefighters,” she said. “Just like Dr. Wu said, ‘when I had black firefighters and white firefighters say yes, they’re willing to move forward with this information, that, I will support.’”

Cannada-Wynn said, “Because they have stated they feel the difference already in the leadership this person is providing to them and look forward to that future leadership, is why I am supporting the confirmation.”

After these remarks, the Pensacola City Council voted to approve Mayor Hayward’s appointment of David Allen as the city’s next fire chief.