Keene Fire Chief Mark Howard announced a week ago that he’ll retire from that position next spring, after eight years at the helm.
His term has been a successful one, we think, though it can be hard to gauge such things. Like a sports referee or umpire, it’s somewhat assumed if you’re not talking about the job they’ve done, it’s been pretty good. Howard has by all accounts run the department efficiently and with a steady hand. He says he’d like to remain involved in the community and, at just 53, he ought to have time for that. The city should be grateful for his service, and we wish him well.
Howard took over as chief after 20 years in the Keene department, including as a captain before the retirement of his predecessor, Gary Lamoureux. That seems a common type of transition in fire departments, where officers are groomed to eventually take command.
Mayor George Hansel has said the city is just starting the process of replacing Howard. No doubt there will be fine candidates from within the department.
But as the process unfolds, we hope it will be with an eye toward one longtime dynamic that the city is committed to addressing: diversity.
The city’s leaders have recently been striving toward a more proactive stance on diversity — of race, religion, gender and more. Rather than settling for tolerance, they’ve pushed further, as evidenced by the creation of a city Racial Justice and Community Safety Committee. Among that panel’s recommendations: “It is recommended that the City work with community stakeholders to establish clear community racial equity and inclusivity goals and that the goals be widely adopted by the City and Keene agencies and businesses.”
Keene is still a homogeneous city, racially, though more people of color have made homes here in recent years. So it’s not surprising various city departments lack staffers who aren’t white. But changing that ought to be part of the future for any incoming department head, especially one with dozens of full and on-call staff.
As there’s no lack of women in the city, perhaps even more pressing is making sure the KFD is a welcoming environment for female members. The department hasn’t had a female firefighter in roughly two decades and has had few in its history. Meanwhile, Swanzey has 11 women members and Hancock has seven.
It’s notable most area fire departments rely heavily — if not solely — on volunteers. Keene, however, has 45 uniformed personnel, in addition to two dozen on-call firefighters. That makes it one of the most-attractive destinations in the region for those looking to make a career of firefighting.
There are many dynamics that could lead one department to have more women than another. In Swanzey, one contributing factor is that several of the female firefighters have family connections in the department — something common in the field.
It’s not clear that any specific factor is keeping Keene from having a more diverse department. But an opening at the top provides an opportunity for positioning the KFD with a fresh eye toward the diversity to which the city is increasingly committing itself. The city manager and council ought to make a point of asking candidates to replace Howard about their views on the topic and how they’d go about making the department a welcoming environment moving forward.
Certainly keeping up the high standards and performance that have been a hallmark of the department is critically important in the job search. But the city manager and council should be sure to ask candidates how they’d go about bringing diversity into the department.