White pleased with direction, attitude of fire district

Last of two parts

By MIKE ANTHONY

Executive Editor

Chief Tim White says policy and procedure changes he has implemented over the past year have transformed the Mehlville Fire Protection District into a different department with a new attitude.

The Board of Directors in April 2009 selected White to succeed Jim Silvernail, who was named chief in April 2005. White was named administrative chief officer and assigned to work alongside Silvernail, who retired earlier this year when his contract expired.

White envisioned Mehlville as a “premier” fire district when he was tapped to be Silvernail’s successor, and much progress has been made over the past year toward reaching that goal. The chief recently presented to the board a list of more than 100 accomplishments he has achieved to move the district forward.

“… It’s a completely different department with a completely different attitude and it’s all because of these policies and procedures that were put into place,” White told the Call. “Everything that — let me put it this way: Everything that was done wrong has been eradicated — everything — and replaced with policies and procedures that are at the pinnacle of the fire service. Now that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth. That doesn’t mean that the job is done. That doesn’t mean we have reached our destination. We have not.”

The 51-year-old White has spent roughly half his life as a firefighter, following in the footsteps of his late father, James, who retired as a captain from Mehlville.

White’s accomplishments focus on health and safety and run the gamut from initiating the design of the district’s first comprehensive fire and rescue training program to developing and implementing new testing procedures for district leadership positions.

The chief discussed how district employees have responded to the changes he has implemented over the past year, noting that whenever change is introduced in the workplace, “The first thing that happens is people go on the defensive, and it’s just human nature. They’re going to go on the defensive: I know what’s happening now. I feel secure in what’s happening now and now something is going to change. And in our minds, it automatically equates to something bad is going to happen. My security has just left and now I go into defensive mode. It’s human nature to start poking holes into the change: Why are you doing this? You don’t need to do it that way. It’s a lot better if you do it this way and on and on …

“And the fact of the matter is, the fire service is dynamic and if you do not change, the system will break you. One thing is going to happen: Either we break or we make the changes to break the old mold … When my dad was a firefighter, it was wood that got on fire and some cotton fibers in the coach. Now we have biological hazards. We have pathogens. We have hazardous materials. We have fires of various degrees of heat. We’ve got fire loads in buildings that generate X amount of BTUs where you have to calculate your water supply to overcome those BTUs. There’s so much more to it now,” White said.

“So these changes were necessary. Every one of these changes was well thought out. The changes of the policies and procedures that I’ve put into place — which there’s well over 150 of them — they’re not going to be well-received (by employees) because they’re going to go on the defensive. But what I’ve tried to do is explain them … This is the change. Here is why there’s going to be a change and here is how this change is going to affect you.

“One of two things is going to happen. Either the employee is going to say: I understand and now I feel secure again. Or they’re going to revolt and they just plain don’t want to change … Surprisingly, there’s been no argument for the policies that I’ve put into place because the employees see — just like the citizens — that all of these changes are so needed and it’s the only way that we can achieve the status that we are striving for, which is the very best fire department that we can deliver in St. Louis County to our people …,” the chief said.

White noted that the board recently approved his recommendations to name Deputy Chief Training Officer Brian Hendricks as assistant chief and Capt. Dan LaFata as deputy chief training officer.

“… All of the chief officers have been specially selected for their positions,” he said. “None of them are in their positions because of politics. They’re in their positions because of talent, because of their motivation and because of their character. This all has to do with integrity and out of that integrity is how you build a premier department.”

White began his firefighting career at Ferguson in 1984 before coming to Mehlville the following year and eventually working his way up to the rank of captain before being named chief. At the Greater St. Louis County Fire Academy, White finished No. 1 in his class and also was voted the Most Outstanding Recruit by his classmates.

Serving as chief of the Mehlville Fire Protection District is a dream come true for White, who is overseeing the construction of the district’s new No. 4 firehouse at 13117 Tesson Ferry Road, right across the street from the existing No. 4 firehouse.

White recalled working the night shift at a Vickers gas station that once operated on the site where the new firehouse is being constructed.

“… As I was going through the Fire Academy, I had to make a few bucks and the only way that I could attend the academy and go to school during the day was to work at night, which meant that there was very little time for sleep considering that I was shooting for No. 1 in the academy,” he said. “So I got a job at what was the Vickers gas station … right across the street from the No. 4 house. I would sit in that glass booth all night and between customers, which were few and far between in the middle of the night, I’d be studying …”

“I would just stand there and read my Fire Academy books. I’d look across the street at that firehouse and think to myself: I hope some day I can be on the Mehlville Fire District because I grew up here. But I knew it was very hard to get on the Mehlville Fire District and the chances were extremely slim of that happening. But I was looking across the street, I’d watch them go out on calls and swell up with pride as I watched them roll out during the middle of the night.

“I knew this is where I wanted to be and I would have never guessed as time passed that not only did I end up on the Mehlville Fire Protection District, which was an extremely proud moment for me, but I ended up being the chief and building the replacement firehouse for the very one that I used to stare at as a young man …,” White said.