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An Outsider Wins Fans In His First Year As Philadelphia Fire Commissioner

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Adam Thiel knew he had his work cut out for him, one year ago.

It was three days into his new job as Philadelphia fire commissioner, the first one in the long history of the department to come from outside of it.

Having built a reputation as a turnaround artist for several fire departments across the country, he had a rule: don’t sign anything for six months.

With an eye on making changes, you don’t want to cement a policy before you’ve had time to see what’s needed.

But a department employee was being very persistent. This memo, he was told, he had to sign. It was urgent.

The department needed typewriters.

“I didn’t know if it was serious or not but no it was really serious. At that time, typewriters were core to our payroll process,” he recalls.

More than 2,600 employees in 63 fire houses filled their time sheets out on a typewriter and then a courier collected them every two weeks in a leather pouch, in a process that Thiel describes as akin to the Pony Express.

Theil did not okay the typewriter purchase.

He found some deputy chiefs had started a pilot project to computerize the time sheets. He expanded the pilot and now the time sheets are submitted electronically.

In a way, that’s been his tenure in a nutshell: he came into a department with crying needs, found dedicated professionals working around them to get the job done, and helped with upgrades.

“I’ve seen some positive change in the last year,” says Lisa Forest, president of the African-American firefighters group, the Valiants.

Forest was an early skeptic. Thiel was replacing an African-American acting Commissioner with a long history in the department. But Forest has been pleased with Thiel’s performance.

“He’s bringing more people on, promoting more people, asking for more money,” she says.

A more significant example of the changes Thiel has brought is the way the department now responds to fires.

A one-alarm fire in most cities, he says, brings four engines, two ladders, an ambulance, two battalion chiefs and then several support units.

“When I got here, the Philadelphia’s fire department initial response was two fire engines and two ladder trucks,” he says. “So we were, right out of the chute, starting out with half the resources of many of our peers.”

Sticking to his six-month rule, Thiel didn’t make a change until the fall but then brought the response to four engines, two ladders and an ambulance.

“That started paying dividends, literally the first day that we did it. We had back-to-back fires in South Philly, where our fire fighters made some immediate rescues, handed those folks off to our medics– one was an infant. They were able to immediately put them in the back of an ambulance, start doing patient care and those folks lived,” says Thiel.

Firefighters union president Andy Thomas is another early skeptic who’s been won over.

“I think he’s looking out for the membership and I think he’s done a pretty good job,” says Thomas, though he’d initially preferred another commissioner from within the department. “It’s tough when you jump in as a person from outside the city, it can be a little bit of a minefield, but he’s taken things in stride and he’s a positive force for the Philadelphia fire department.”

Thiel, reciprocally, is a big fan of Philadelphia fire fighters.

“Our fire fighters and medics are the best I’ve ever seen,” he says. “And part of the reason is because, historically, they have a lot of experience working with fewer resources than our peer departments.”

“We make that work. That’s kind of a mantra around here. I’ve heard it literally since day one, every fire house I’ve gone to, ‘We make it work, we make it work, we make it work.'”

Thiel admires the mind-set but wants to change the reason behind it.

Increasing the response to fires has strained other parts of the system, he admits. He is still working on the long-term plan for how to deploy resources so that daily operations are fully supported.

He’ll get some help, if city council approves the proposed budget, which includes money for 30 new fire fighters and 30 paramedics, as well as $12 million in the capital budget for new equipment.

Thiel, a native of Chicago, has served in Arizona, North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia, including stints as Fire Director and Deputy Chief of Homeland Security for the state of Virginia.

Some fire fighters’ biggest fear is that he won’t stay long enough to complete the improvements he’s started. But Thiel says he hopes to stay in Philadelphia… forever.

“This city really got under my skin quickly,” he says. “My father and all my aunts and uncles were born here. I still have relatives here. My grandmother and grandfather met here. He was a ship captain on the Delaware River so I guess it sort of skipped a generation but I really do love the city and the quality of life and everything about living here.”

The fire situation, though, is the challenge of a lifetime.

“Fire is a problem here. There’s just no sugar-coating it,” he says. “We have more fire deaths than we should, we have more fire injuries than we should, we have a lot of people who are at risk for fire and they’re folks who really need our help.

“So, if you want to help people, if that’s what motivates you, and that’s what you find rewarding, as I do, I cannot imagine a more rewarding place to be than Philadelphia, now, as we have the opportunity with this mayor and this city council and all of our city partners, to have a conversation about the fire department and fire safety and emergency medical services and taking care of people.”

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