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Published: Tuesday, 1/11/2011

New Sylvania Twp. fire chief rose through ranks

Jeff Kowalski, promoted last week to fire chief in Sylvania Township, has been in the fire service for nearly 33 years, but his career nearly ended within days of its start.

Chief Kowalski, 57, hired on as a firefighter in April, 1978, two days after his daughter -- the older of his two children -- was born. The first call to which he responded was a medical emergency involving an infant nine months old.

The baby didn't survive, and the rookie firefighter wasn't sure he could continue to cope with situations like that.

"I was that close to quitting," he said with a pinch of his fingers Tuesday evening after the township trustees changed his status from interim to permanent, naming him to succeed Frederick Welsh, who retired effective Dec. 31 but had been using up vacation time after announcing his resignation in early October.

But young Mr. Kowalski persevered, learning to accept that not every emergency response would have a happy ending, and over time worked his way up.

"My lifelong dream was to become a deputy chief, or an assistant chief," he said.

Chief Kowalski, now in charge of the department's 61 other firefighters, officers, and staff, clearly has surpassed his career goal.

He said he believes he has management skills and style somewhat different from those of Chief Welsh, who came to Sylvania Township from suburban Washington in October, 2007, to lead the local fire department.

"Coming up through the ranks, I think the guys respect that, and I respect them," he said, adding that he hopes to follow the leadership example of Christopher Maurer, the chief who preceded Mr. Welsh and had a 30-year firefighting career in the township.

Chief Kowalski said that although Mr. Welsh did a fine job as chief, he had "larger-department ideas" that weren't always compatible with an agency that mostly responds to medical emergencies -- 82 percent of its calls -- instead of fires.

Chief Kowalski said the biggest change he has seen in firefighting during his career -- and the biggest challenge he faces -- is fire-service involvement in terrorism preparedness. Additional hazardous-materials and weapons-of-mass-destruction training is a considerable responsibility for smaller fire departments, he said.

"That's a challenge to us. They add all these things to our plate, but they don't give us the funding to do it," the chief said.

But training in all areas of emergency response is a vital part of department preparedness.

"It's a huge goal to make sure everyone goes home in the morning," Chief Kowal- ski said.

The new chief's wife, Mary, pinned his new badge to his uniform during a traditional ceremony last week, and he later said that family support remains vital to a successful fire-service career.

"They're a very integral part of it. They live through that career just as the fireman does," he said.

Chief Kowalski's promotion includes a salary increase, from $78,890 to $85,000, and leaves the township with just one opening remaining among three executive positions vacated by resignations last year: police chief.

Township trustee Kevin Haddad said that with the fire department's leadership settled, he and colleague John Jennewine now can focus on the police chief position, although a selection probably won't be made until ongoing labor contract negotiations are resolved.

Even more urgent for the two trustees is filling the third seat on their board, vacated at year's end by Carol Contrada after she was elected to the Lucas County Board of Commissioners.

Mr. Haddad and Mr. Jennewine agreed last week to go through a list of applicants and each create a short list of finalists who would then be asked to come in for interviews.

Under state law, the two trustees have until Jan. 30 to choose their new colleague.



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