When Ed Ellis became Oregon’s fire chief in 2010, he had some work to do to improve the department’s morale.
Many firefighters had fought against his predecessor, Bill Wilkins, when former Mayor Marge Brown appointed him to the chief’s position in November 2006.
Wilkins, who was from Defiance, had only been assistant fire chief for months when he was promoted to chief. Firefighters had packed council chambers on Nov. 20 of that year to slam the administration’s hiring policies, which they believed had excluded them from applying for the positions of chief and assistant chief.
Firefighters said they were told by Brown and former City Administrator Ken Filipiak that they would get six months notice when such positions became available so they could apply for them. Yet Brown announced Wilkin’s appointment at the Nov. 20 meeting just minutes after she had announced the retirement of outgoing Fire Chief Ray Walendzak. It left firefighters seething.
Ellis, who was president of the Oregon part-time firefighters’ association, spoke for the rank and file at the meeting and let it be known the department was not happy.
“I don’t believe there were six minutes of Chief Walendzak’s notice of retirement when there was the appointment of a new chief,” Ellis had said. “This fire department has been led by men who started in the volunteer department, pursued their training in the department, then went on to be chief of the department. They built a fire department that’s considered one of the best in Ohio. Why is this administration so intent on tearing it apart, giving command to someone who had nothing to do with building it?”
For the next few years, Wilkins was unable to resolve lingering hard feelings of many in the department. In 2009, after Brown was defeated by current Mayor Mike Seferian, who had received widespread support from firefighters, Wilkins announced he would resign the following year.
Seferian, who picked Ellis to be his new fire chief, met with considerable resistance from some members on council, particularly those who had supported Brown and Wilkins. The only way to get council to go along with Ellis as the new chief is that he would serve in the top post for Seferian’s first term. After that, he would retire.
After Seferian won re-election last November, Ellis, 66, was told by Seferian that he had to honor the agreement. In March, just short of 45 years in the fire department, Ellis’s career came to an end.
“When Mayor Seferian got re-elected last November, it became apparent that one faction of government wanted me to move on,” Ellis told The Press recently. It’s too bad. I didn’t do a bad job. But that’s the way it goes.
He said he had been able to restore morale in the department, his top goal, during the years he was chief.
“There was a lot of turmoil before I became chief. That was the primary reason I think I was picked for the job. I came out of the ranks and tried to get everything back on an even keel,” he said. “We restored some of the harmony back in the fire department. Not all of it. We have 100 members. You can’t make all of them happy. That’s just the way it is.”
“Ed is a nice guy. As chief, he did fill the need at the time as a healer of some of the wounds we suffered from the past transition with Wilkins. And that’s what his role was at that time. Quite frankly, we always figured he would fulfill his duty in a three year period. Actually, he was there approaching four years. So we got over that hump, and he did a good job to get us there,” said Seferian.
Besides boosting morale, Ellis said he was pleased there were no firefighters injured during his tenure.
“We didn’t have anyone injured, which I thought was great. We had some major fires. We probably ran about 8,000 calls all together in that time frame. I had one guy in an auto accident, but other than that, we had no problems in the fire department as far as injuries,” he said.
The department also established “soft billing” of residents’ health insurance companies for rescue services as a way to counter increased costs in the department.
“That was a big thing in the city. With cuts in state aid, we needed another revenue source, and we got it through with no problems. It’s fair.”
One of the changes he’s seen during his firefighting career is a significant reduction in the number of fires.
“The EMS has become the mainstay of the fire department. Fires have gone down drastically. Basically, a fire department like ours is a whole lot of EMS work. But we still have to be ready to have training in place for firefighting. When I joined, we didn’t even have a rescue squad at the No. 3 Fire Station,” he said.
Ellis became a firefighter on May 26, 1969.
“My mom and dad had moved near the No. 3 Fire Station off Bayshore Road. And a lot of neighborhood men at that time were firefighters,” he said, as well as a couple of friends.
“As soon as I was 21, I went down, put my application in, and was hired. I’ve been there ever since. I was in Oregon the entire time for almost 45 years,” he said. “I was really happy working with the people I’ve worked with all those years. It’s been a great experience.”