With the start of the new year, the West Grove Fire Company gained a new (and returning) Fire Chief in Eric Felker. And, at the same time, saw the end of five years of service by Justin Gattorno as Fire Chief.
WGFC has been fortunate to have a very talented group of volunteers serve as fire chief throughout its history. The role of the chief continues to change throughout the years, as the profession of firefighting evolves and as the community continues to change. For most people, the fire chief is recognized as the person in charge at emergencies, wearing the white helmet and directing the fire fight. While that hasn't changed, what most people don't realize is that the vast majority of time spent by a fire chief is behind the scenes, managing an ever expanding operation, motivating staff and volunteers, engaging with municipal officials, and handling a mountain of paperwork that comes with the role. And, few understanding the enormous burden of responsibility that comes with overseeing a 24X7X365 emergency response with lives at stake.
At WGFC we honor Chief Gattorno for his accomplishments over the past five years. He's not leaving the WGFC, just stepping back by his choice, to give others a chance to lead. But it is worth reviewing some of his accomplishments these last few years (keep in mind that the fire chief is a volunteer position):
-- The chief has been committed to firefighter health and safety. He oversaw a plan to seek and successfully win federal grant money that supported a nearly $200,000 project to install exhaust removal systems at all three stations, which work to remove dangerous fire truck and ambulance exhaust from the fire houses -- a source of cancer risk for volunteers and staff.
-- To assure the fire company sets a good example to the community, he oversaw seeking funds to upgrade the fire alarm systems in all three stations to protect the buildings and personnel, and the community's investment in the WGFC.
-- Chief Gattorno oversaw the updating of the fire company's apparatus replacement plan in 2018, which lays out the capital expenses for the company's fleet over a 20+ year period. This not only allows for the orderly and regular replacement of apparatus in an ever-growing fleet, but also helps municipal officials understand this very large component of the WGFC budget looking years forward.
-- He oversaw the planning for, acquisition of, and in service of a new ladder, tanker and pumper during his tenure. This modern equipment represents nearly $2.5 million in equipment investments to serve the community for the next 20 years.
-- Chief Gattorno was the first chief at WGFC granted the authority to appoint his fire line officers, coming from a bylaws change made by the membership. In doing so, he established an approach on how to select and appoint the officers, growing the quality of the officer field and helping to encourage growth among those interested in leadership.
-- Chief Gattorno conceived a plan to employ a full-time mechanic to service the WGFC fleet of vehicles, and engaged with the Union Fire Company of Oxford to partner in that effort. This project, which began operations in late 2022 will decrease day to day maintenance expenses for both fire departments, and help keep the fleet in better shape and improve availability. This is particularly important at a time when the 22 and 21 ambulances have dramatically high utilization due to the closing of the Jennersville Hospital.
-- The Chief also oversaw the addition of an expanded territory for fire and EMS response due to the decision by London Grove Township to shift emergency response for all of the township to West Grove. This not only expanded the geographic coverage area, but also the volume of fire and EMS calls for the department.
-- During his tenure as Chief, the department continued to expand its staff and volunteers. Recognizing the need to augment volunteers during the day time and the need for more ambulance coverage 24X7 due to unprecedented call volume, Chief Gattorno worked to expand the career staff. At the same time, he oversaw and pushed for increased recruitment and retention efforts and budget, with the WGFC volunteer ranks swelling at a time when fire departments across the County and the nation were struggling to recruit volunteers.
-- Chief Gattorno and Assistant Chief of EMS and Career Service Vinnacombe led efforts to position the fire department to respond the unusual challenges associated with the sudden closing of the Jennersville Hospital. This included significant communication with state, county and local officials. It also required significant leadership to address the extended ambulance transport times, staffing, and emergency responses. It included traveling to Harrisburg to testify on the impact of the closing.
-- The Chief also had to oversee operations under the unprecedented pandemic situation. His leadership under rapidly evolving conditions assured the protection of WGFC personnel from the virus, and assured a reliable WGFC would be available even as firefighters and EMTs were getting sick. This was no small effort, as very little was known about severity and transmission the early portion of the pandemic, and such a situation had not been experienced before. His steady hand assured the department got through the two-year crisis very well.
These accomplishments all took place while the chief was also supervising an operation with increasing emergency calls -- more than 650 on the fire side, and breaking 3100 on the EMS side -- record volume in the fire company's history. He will no doubt point out that these accomplishments were not just his accomplishments but those of many people -- and, while that is true, his leadership and determination were the guiding force behind these efforts. His steady hand, calm demeanor, and leadership style gained respect inside the department, among other Chester County fire companies, and from area municipal officials. Justin has been a member at WGFC since 2006, and will be with us for many years to come.
Congratulations Chief Gattorno on impressive accomplishments over your five-year tenure. The WGFC and the community are grateful.