After The Veranda House, Community Rallies For Sean Mitchell To Be Next Fire Chief

Jason Graziadei •

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The fight against the Veranda House fire is over, but a fight over who should be Nantucket’s next fire chief has just ignited.

As the final flames at the Veranda House were extinguished last weekend, Nantucket Fire Department Deputy Chief Sean Mitchell was being widely credited for his leadership in guiding a response that prevented a larger disaster in the downtown area.

With current Fire Chief Steve Murphy sidelined due to recent shoulder surgery, it was Mitchell who took command of the fire scene and led Nantucket firefighters, along with more than a dozen firefighters from Cape Cod, in containing the blaze to just three structures in the thickly settled neighborhood.

As Murphy is preparing to retire in September, Mitchell’s performance during the blaze and his 16-year career with NFD prompted many to assume he would be the one selected by the town to lead the department following Murphy's retirement. After all, he’s young, has worked his way up through the ranks, holds the respect of his colleagues, and has demonstrated his commitment to the island community.

But Mitchell is not the town’s choice for the job. He wasn’t even among the two finalists who have been invited to come to the island from the mainland for a final round of interviews.

Mitchell, according to several sources with knowledge of the situation, discovered he was out of the running for the job when he was forwarded a Cape and Islands fire chiefs’ newsletter, which mentioned the Nantucket fire chief search was down to three finalists.

“Town employees have become accustomed to being disrespected, and this is just another day in the office,” Mitchell told the Current on Thursday. He declined to comment further.

The situation has prompted an outcry from community members and the firefighters’ union, Local 2509, who are urging the town to reconsider its decision and choose Mitchell for the job. A social media campaign is now circulating, along with letters and e-mails to the town administration seeking to have Mitchell named as the island’s next fire chief.

Town manager Libby Gibson declined to comment specifically about Mitchell’s candidacy. Gibson is one of three people on the town’s fire chief search committee, along with Human Resources Director Amanda Perry, and call firefighter Neil Paterson, who owns a stonemasonry company and serves as an elected member and chair of the Land Bank Commission. The search process has been facilitated by Jack Parow, a consultant and former fire chief of Chelmsford, Mass., who was hired by the town.

“I will not comment on that at this point, except to say that he (Mitchell) has been included in discussions about the hiring process,” Gibson said. “We have conducted interviews, held an assessment center, selected finalists and are working on dates to bring the finalists to the island at which time the names will be public.”

According to several sources, the two finalists for the Nantucket job are Michael Cranson, the fire chief of the Portsmouth Fire Department in Rhode Island, and Chris Christopoulos, Jr. the fire chief and emergency management director for the city of Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Paterson, who was at the Veranda House fire in his role as a call firefighter, told the Current on Thursday: “We are all well aware of Sean Mitchell’s incredible leadership at the fire,” Paterson said. “It’s a really difficult decision and I have nothing but the greatest respect for Sean Mitchell and the fire department. Being there first-hand, I’m well aware of the heroic efforts of all involved.”

The Nantucket Fire Fighters Local 2509 union, which is part of the International Association of Fire Fighters, voted unanimously this week to support Mitchell’s candidacy for the job. Union rep and Capt. Jeff Allen told the Current on Thursday that Mitchell was initially hesitant to apply for the job, but was encouraged on multiple occasions by the town administration to throw his hat in the ring.

The fear, Allen said, is that another fire chief sourced from off-island will only stick around for a short time, and like others that have come from the mainland, may not be a good fit for Nantucket.

“We want someone who’s going to be here for more than a couple years, not a bandaid,” Allen said. “For Sean to do what he did last weekend - no one dead and the fire didn’t run the entire town - it’s pretty telling about his capabilities. I’ve known him since he started. He’s intelligent, measured, articulate, all the things we need in a leader.”

Given the atmosphere and depleted morale at the department now, Allen continued, it would be difficult for an outsider to come in.

“Whoever’s coming in here is coming into a wood chipper,” Allen said. “They’ll run into 27 guys deeply dedicated to this job and the deputy chief. It’s not disrespecting those guys, they could be great chiefs. But they’re here for three years.”

Nantucket Firefighter Kevin Ramos also praised Mitchell’s leadership, and said someone selected from off-island was likely coming only to “buff up his retirement” for a few years and then would be gone.

“Sean is someone that leads next to you and does not hide behind a desk,” Ramos said. “He is not afraid to get his hands dirty...In or line of work, we need to be on the same page. Sean is a part of our family and we respect Sean for his leadership skills he has that a lot of people in this town lack.”

Joining the firefighters’ union in supporting Mitchell is a group of island residents who have taken to social media to express their support for the deputy chief to get the promotion to the top spot in the department.

“I am saddened and confused to learn that Deputy Chief Mitchell did not even make the last round of interviews for the chief position,” said island resident Jamie Foster. “I have personally and professionally known Sean for 16 years and I can’t seem to comprehend there is a more qualified candidate. Sean is a respected member of this community as a parent, coach and the glue of the NFD. Last week, with the tragic fire downtown, we needed a leader and Sean delivered. I appeal to the town and its officials to make this right and select the candidate that the community and firefighters want. It’s not too late, town officials, listen to the community.”

Others, including Chicken Box co-owner and School Committee member Rocky Fox, have also thrown their support behind Mitchell and are publicly advocating for the town to reconsider.

“When we have a qualified candidate in Sean it would seem silly not to reopen the application process not only due to his long standing career but also for what he and his crew did this past weekend,” Fox said. “ I’d be curious to know if not then why, if he was willing, could it be reopened?”

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