Fire Department gets new chief as reopening begins

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Sixteen years ago, Matt Taylor joined the Trumansburg Volunteer Fire Department after a couple friends “coerced” him to put his Class B CDL to good use.

“I was voted in November of 2004, and the fire chief at the time, Jason, says I can’t drive trucks for a year: ‘So why don’t you find something else to do first?’” Taylor said. “So I went, got my interior fire certification … [and did] everything that had to deal with the fire service except driving truck.”

Joining the Fire Department was not something Taylor took lightly, as he continued to devote his time to the service for well over a decade, becoming lieutenant in 2009 and working his way further through the ranks, from assistant chief to deputy chief.

On May 8, he reached another milestone when he officially became the new fire chief, taking over for previous fire chief, Jason Fulton.

Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart swore in Taylor and five other line officers, something typically done at the department’s annual banquet. Because the event has been canceled this year due to COVID-19, the swearing-in was a very small affair, said Assistant Chief Dan Scherer.

“I think it’s a nice demonstration to the community that we are still very much committed to doing our job in terms of protecting them,” Scherer said.

The cancellation of the banquet wasn’t the only change the Fire Department had to make this year; the coronavirus necessitated department-wide changes in procedure, including increasing safety precautions according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I don’t know if it’s good timing or bad timing, but the pandemic has definitely shaped the fire service in a way that I don’t think any of us really ever saw coming,” Taylor said. “It heightens your awareness to things around you much, much differently.”

In addition, all training programs have been put on hold, as well as inducting new members.

“We’re a volunteer organization, so somebody may have lost their job, and now they have to spend time with their kids, or the schools are closed, so everybody’s dealing with their kids,” Taylor said. “And we didn’t want to add another layer of burden requiring people to jump through hoops for two months trying to figure out how we’re going to train them.”

Still, Scherer said the decision has taken its toll.

“Our fire department has a very robust training program and has a very healthy social network, all those secondary benefits of being part of a group,” he said. “None of that can happen right now. So, I think that’s been a struggle for people.”

Because there is no training right now, Scherer said the department has placed extra emphasis on keeping current members interested and their skills sharp.

“I don’t really worry about losing members,” he said. “I think the people that are a part of the Fire Department are really committed so far beyond a few months of social distancing and new constraints. … I do worry a little bit about, because we’re not training right now, getting, I would say, rusty. You kind of get out of the flow of things when you’re not practicing stuff a lot.”

Another challenge the department has been facing is the mental strain of isolation, Scherer said.

“I don’t think anyone other than maybe the extreme introverts of the world are liking this whole isolation thing,” he said. “But for a group like a fire department that is really a family and a vibrant one, it’s difficult.”

Taylor said the biggest challenge, though, comes as the county proceeds with the state’s phased reopening plan and his department works to bring normalcy back to the department.

“Some of these folks have been away from the firehouse for two and a half months,” he said. “And we always say, if you’re gone long enough, you’ll find another hobby. And so, I think one of the challenges is going to be how do we get back going again? … How do we have meetings and still be cognizant of the physical distancing?”

Another uncertainty is what training will look like when it reopens, something Taylor projects will start around the beginning of June.

“We’re not used to doing physical distancing,” he said. “We’re used to working very close to each other. If you’re tying ropes, hauling and putting people in cars and throwing ladders, all those things you have to do within six feet of each other. So, how do we do it safely and continue to be able to train and keep our skills sharp? That’s the main thing.”

Due to the timing of his new position, Taylor’s top priorities as the new chief are largely focused on helping his department tackle challenges caused by the coronavirus and any challenges that come as reopening continues.

“Trying to get through this year’s budget with COVID, it’s going to be a challenge; sales tax is right in the dump,” he said. “And so, [I’m] trying to keep the taxpayer levy level and still provide equipment to the members that they need and provide a level of safety for all that equipment that we use.”

Farther down the line, Taylor plans to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

“I got handed a pretty easy docket,” he said. “Jason Fulton, the past fire chief, did an amazing job running the department. My job is really to take the train on the tracks and just keep driving down the tracks. I’ve got a few things in my mind that I’d like to see happen, some different programs that I’m trying to kick around, but it’s not anything that is out of this world, per se.”

Despite the large task ahead of him, Taylor is confident in this role. He’s had plenty of practice juggling multiple responsibilities working as a facilities director for Schuyler Hospital and putting in volunteer hours for the Trumansburg Fire Department.

“There’s a lot of keys to balancing it all,” Taylor said. “Some of it is organization. Some of it is being able to lean on the other officers to get work done and realizing that you can’t do it all yourself. A good, strong family base is good.”

Whether it’s from his family, his friends or his department, Taylor has considerable support on multiple fronts. Scherer said he and the rest of the department are glad to have Taylor as their new chief.

“It’s got to be difficult going into that role,” Scherer said. “He is really committed to continuing the strong reputation of the Trumansburg Fire Department. He’s good man. He’s been around the Fire Department for a long time, and he’s going to do a great job.”

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