ST. ALBANS TOWN — Harold “Bobby” Cross has been firefighting in St. Albans Town for a pretty long time. The 57-year-old started with the department as a teenager in 1976, a year after it was first formed.
“It was down at the town garage,” Cross said in an interview Monday, referring to the old fire station then at the Department of Public Works site at St. Albans Bay. He remembered the St. Albans Town Fire Department starting with two bays, three trucks – a pumper and two tankers – and 24 members.
Since then, Cross and the department have come a long way. The fire department moved to its current location on Lake Road in 1977, and Cross, after moving through the ranks of lieutenant, captain, and assistant chief for department, became the fire chief in 1995.
In 2015, the department has 32 members, six cadets and two trainees. It also has more trucks, more space, and a lot of history. As of last month, the St. Albans Fire Department gained one more new feature: a full-time public safety administrator and inspector.
Cross applied for and was awarded the public safety and administrator position with the St. Albans Town Fire Department, which he began on Dec. 15. He was one of three people that applied, and his salary is $40,000 per year.
Now, Cross can be found in his office during normal business hours, answering phone calls and sifting through a hefty pile of paperwork.
“It makes it a little bit easier,” said Cross, who worked at Maurice’s Service Center – his “second family” – for 30 years prior to becoming a full-time St. Albans Town employee. In the past, Cross and his assistant chief, Randy Swann, have spent hours on paperwork, often stopping by the fire station after work and before dinner, and going to three hour meetings every Monday night.
Now, as an employee with business hours, Cross said he has much more time to file reports, pay bills on time, and apply for grants.
“If it’s not on paper then it didn’t happen,” said Cross, indicating the importance of record-keeping for the department. “We have to keep that up.”
“Of course, then you have to look at fires,” Cross pointed out. He can take daytime calls – many of which are for carbon monoxide false alarms – saving his volunteer firefighters from having to leave work as often.
“We’re trying to save our guys from leaving their work for the big stuff instead of the small stuff,” said Cross. “Every call has to be answered and it should be answered in a timely manner, and this is a position that should help do that.”
In new position, Cross can now oversee construction projects to make sure they incorporate fire-safe features. This has been an issue in the past. For example, Cross said that the relatively new Franklin Park West development currently has fire hydrants 15 to 20 feet away from the road.
“How we’re going to use those hydrants is beyond me,” said Cross. “We haven’t been around to monitor projects, [but] we will be able to do so now.”
Cross is still settling into his position and there are more duties that will come with time. “This position is probably going to have [an] building inspector’s license,” he said, adding that he and the Vermont State Fire Marshal would respond to and inspect building complaints.
Cross also said that in addition to the fire safety education currently done in local schools and by request, his department would look to expand education efforts in the future.
“We’re probably going to try and go to the senior housing a little more,” he said.
Long time coming
A public safety administrator and inspector is a position that has long been discussed by town officials, and Cross said the town is following the trend of many others that realized they need a full-time administrative person for their fire departments.
Cross has tried to largely stay out of the conversation in the past, mostly because he knew if a full-time position ever came around, he would apply for it.
“A lot of [town] managers have talked about this position with me,” Cross said. “I never once pushed or the position – I knew they had a fire committee.”
It was in fact the St. Albans Town Fire Services Advisory Committee that recommended hiring someone in January of 2013. The selectboard announced the position would be created in August of 2014, when the hiring process began.
“I’m excited to be here and I think I can be a big part of the process of getting the initial part of this job going,” Cross said, adding, “I think the [fire department] guys are pretty happy about it.”
St. Albans Town Manager Carrie Johnson said on Friday that Cross’ first month or so has gone well.
“We’re pleased,” she said. “It’s more efficient and I’m really happy about that.” She said it already helping with quicker call response times and better use of department resources.
Cross said the reason he’s the fire chief and is happy about his new position as public safety administrator and inspector is because of his ability to serve the community.
“I love the community,” he said. “And the guys on the department love their community.”
As an example, Cross said that many of his volunteers have moved to houses closer to the station in order to have faster response time.
“That’s dedication,” he said.
Trophies line the walls of the department’s meeting room, awards from training competitions and honors for the St. Albans Town firefighter service.
In addition, the St. Albans Fire Department’s firefighter association has raised quite a bit of money over the years to maintain or buy new equipment – such as insulated doors for the garage bays.
“Our association is pretty active,” said Cross. “Throughout the years we’ve put a lot of money into the department and are proud to do so.”
In kind, St. Albans Town has treated its fire department well. “Our community support is outstanding,” said Cross. “They love our fire department and our fire department loves them.”
No fire department budget item, for example, has failed to be passed by voters, which allows volunteers to be well-equipped.
“We’re kind of the envy of Franklin County,” said Cross. “We’re just proud of everything we have and everything that’s given to us, the tools to fight fires.”
While they have what they need for when the worst happens, Cross said emergency calls were down by about 25 percent this year – they fell from about 400 to 300 calls between 2013 and 2014.
“That’s good,” he said. “We’d rather be down on calls than up on calls.”
Though the emergency calls are fewer, there’s still plenty of work to be done by the St. Albans Fire Department, tasks that Cross is happy to complete as he gets settled in his new position.
“I do love being here,” he said.