Fire captain to become Mass. town's first female fire chief

Jenifer Collins-Brown said she was happy to be a role model for young women who might want to follow a firefighting career path

By Ethan Forman
The Salem News

TOPSFIELD, Mass. — For soon-to-be Topsfield fire Chief Jenifer Collins-Brown, the reality is she will still need to be a jack-of-all-trades.

Around noon on Tuesday, for example, a woman came to the station with chest pains. Collins-Brown, the department's emergency medical services coordinator, took the woman's blood pressure, and when it was decided the woman had to go to the hospital, Collins-Brown drove the ambulance.

"You never know," Collins-Brown said of being a firefighter in a small town. "That's what's the greatest thing about the job, it's so unpredictable and varied. One minute you could be inspecting an oil burner, the next minute you could be treating someone who is having chest pain and making a real difference in their outcomes."

Topsfield selectmen on Monday voted to confirm the appointment of Collins-Brown as fire chief. Pending the outcome of contract negotiations, the current fire captain will become the first female fire chief in Essex County, and just the fourth in the state.

"I am very happy to be a role model for young women who might want to follow this career path. So, it is something women can do," she said Collins-Brown.

A Marblehead native, Collins-Brown is a 30-year veteran of the Topsfield Fire Department. She spent her first 18 years as a call firefighter while also working as an occupational therapist and manager in various hospital settings.

Last month, she received the 2016 Coverdall EMS Collaborative Leadership Award from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for her work in stroke care. In 2012, she was named the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services Fire and Life Safety Educator of the Year.

“Chief Collins-Brown will be a good leader for the fire department and the fire service," said state Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey, in a statement. "She has been a strong advocate for fire education and fire prevention and I look forward to working with her.”

"I think it's remarkable her achievements in the department and her public service in town," said Topsfield Town Administrator Kellie Hebert.

Public service in her blood

The 1982 Marblehead High graduate comes from a family of public servants. Her grandfather was a district chief in Beverly, she said. Her brother, Michael Collins, is Beverly's commissioner of public services and engineering.

"My parents have always taught us to leave things better than we found them," Collins-Brown said.

As chief, she will oversee a department of four-full time firefighters and 18 call firefighters.

She estimates she earned $120,000 last year, an amount that includes pay for details, callback and overtime work. Her salary as chief has to be negotiated. The job was advertised with a range of $96,000 to $105,000 a year.

Topsfield has a busy fire department for a town of just 6,100 residents. Much of that is due to Routes 1 and 95 passing through town.

Last year, the department fielded 893 emergency calls for fire, medical and hazardous materials. The department had a total of 2,448 responses, including other calls for service.

"When people don't know what to do," Collins-Brown said, "they call the fire department."

She replaces longtime fire Chief Ronald Giovannacci, who retired in January. Richard Harris, the former fire chief in North Reading, has served as interim chief in the meantime.

"Chief Giovannacci has brought the department a long way," Collins-Brown said.

She said the small-town fire department, with an annual operating budget of $757,000, faces challenges. Her immediate goal is to make sure there is a guaranteed response at night, since the station is only staffed from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and call firefighters respond at night.

Second offer as chief

This is not the first time Collins-Brown has been offered a fire chief's job. She declined the Boxford post in January 2015.

While it was a "great honor" to have been offered the Boxford job, she would not have been able to work as a paramedic, which she can do in Topsfield.

She also did not want to leave Topsfield with Giovannacci's retirement pending, she said.

The mother of four grown children in their 20s is married to firefighter Charles Brown. Her son, Conor, has worked full-time on the department since 2012.

Concerned about following the law when it comes to possible conflicts of interest, Collins-Brown said she will not be involved if her son were to go for a promotion.

Call and full-time firefighters are members of a collective bargain units, she said.

"Everything that we do here, whether it be call assignment, shift assignment, vacation, overtime, backfill, training, is all done by contract," she said. "So, the chief has no financial impact on that."

Topsfield received 24 applicants for the fire chief position. Officials hired New Hampshire-based consulting firm Municipal Resources Inc. to whittle down the applicants to five. Those remaining candidates went through an assessment center process, from which Collins-Brown and Nahant fire Chief Michael Fineberg emerged as the two finalists.

Collins-Brown said she went through phone interviews, wrote essays, and went before two different screening panels before earning the appointment.

"It's an important position," she said. "It's worth the time and effort to pick the right candidate."

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