TOPSHAM — Chris McLaughlin knew he wanted to run a fire department again, but he didn’t know he’d get the opportunity so soon.

McLaughlin has a bachelor’s degree in public management from the University of Maine in Orono and said he wasn’t looking for a chief’s job, but was always keeping his mind open to the possibility if the right position came available.

And he knew his degree would come in handy when it came time to handle the administrative duties that come with running a fire department.

The time was right, and the job was a good fit, so McLaughlin applied and was unanimously selected to be the new chief of the Topsham Fire Department last month.

McLaughlin, 34, started as chief of the department on April 2. He comes to Sagadahoc County after serving as a chief in West Gardiner for about five years and as a full-time firefighter in Augusta for nearly a decade, bringing with him  experience with both volunteer and per diem firefighters, as well as with a full-time crew.

In Topsham, he’ll have both.

“The department seems to be the right fit as to where Topsham is as a fire service,” McLaughlin said during an interview at the Topsham Fire Station on Monday.

“I felt that if I was going to go for a chief’s job at this point in my career, it would be a department like this.”

The Topsham department’s makeup is a little like what he managed in West Gardiner and what he was a part of in Augusta: There are per diem, on-call and full-time firefighters.

Developing, cultivating and maintaining relationships with firefighters of different experience levels and at different points in their careers will be an important part of McLaughlin’s job in Topsham.

“I had the best of both worlds when it came to what they were looking for here,” he said.

McLaughlin, a licensed paramedic, replaced Brian Stockdale, who left the department in July to become the new fire chief in Lewiston. He’ll continue to live in West Gardiner with his wife and three young children.

There were about 20 people who applied for the job, and a search committee interviewed five finalists and recommended its top candidate to Town Manager Rich Roedner.

A memo to the Select Board in early March said McLaughlin was ready to manage a bigger department and help with Topsham’s transition to more full-time firefighters.

“The biggest challenge we have right now is finding the proper mix with our call force, our per diem and full-time firefighters to provide the 24-hour coverage we’ve committed to,” Roedner said by phone Monday. “Trying to create a blended department and finding that balance depending on the cost (is important).”

McLaughlin said he’ll rely on fire chiefs in the area that he’s built relationships with, including Al Nelson, the chief in Gardiner who was one of McLaughlin’s references. With so much mutual aid between departments, communication among fire service providers needs to be strong.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Nelson said McLaughlin is coming to Topsham at a time when the community and fire department is growing, and he said McLaughlin brings experience that will help as that growth continues.

“I’m glad to see him there and I think he’ll do a good job,” the Gardiner chief said. “I think he’s up to the task, and I think he’s smart enough to learn from any mistakes (he makes) and move on.”

Nelson said there might be some in the public or fire services community that might think a 34-year-old doesn’t have the experience or knowledge to run a department like Topsham’s, but Nelson said McLaughlin’s age brings a lot of advantages.

“He’s still learning, and I see that as a plus in a position like this,” Nelson said. “He’s not so set in his ways that he’s not willing to change, and I think that’s where being younger can work to your advantage.”

One thing McLaughlin will have to do is get to know Topsham and the surrounding areas. While he has lived in West Gardiner for years — about 20 minutes from the Topsham fire station — he doesn’t really know the people in Topsham and the community.

“I’ve built a lot of relationships in central Maine, but I don’t know a lot of the chiefs down here,” McLaughlin said. “It’s real important to treat people with respect and be a decent human being, and I’ve been able to do that, and that’ll serve me well as I get to know the area and the people.”

While working in Augusta for a department that responds to more than 6,000 calls per year, McLaughlin said he noticed what worked and what didn’t within the department, and he’s bringing a lot of that institutional knowledge with him to Topsham.

“It molds you a little bit, and I talked to my battalion chief (Steve Leach) quite often, and he was a big influence in stepping up and taking a job like this,” McLaughlin said. “You’ve got to be able to communicate on all levels.”

Being a people person and someone who likes to interact with the public has served McLaughlin well in his career, and he said it’s something that will continue to be an important quality as he continues to grow and build the Topsham Fire Department.

Word of mouth spreads quick throughout the fire services industry and people know who you are even if you don’t think they do, he said.

The former high school baseball coach said he enjoys visiting schools and going out into the community, because much of the interaction firefighters have with people are during times of trauma and despair.

“I just have that ability to talk to people,” he said. “I’m approachable, and I think my personality is one of the reason’s Topsham picked me.”

McLaughlin said he did a lot of research about the Topsham Fire Department and how the department grew during Stockdale’s seven-year tenure.

The department works out of a large, modern fire house which is part of the 56,000-square-feet, 2-building municipal complex on Main Street, and McLaughlin said the department is well-equipped and ready to grow alongside the community.

“When I applied for this, I wanted to make sure I was coming into a department that was in good shape given where I was in my career,” he said. “I wanted a department that is supported by the town, and from what I’ve seen, the town of Topsham has generally supported their department.”

Having a newer facility and modern trucks and other equipment will give McLaughlin time to manage the people on the roster and work on recruiting new firefighters and paramedics, something he hopes will also be aided by his large network of contacts throughout central Maine and the Midcoast.

What really matters is what happens when the fire department shows up to a fire or accident scene, the chief said, and not having to worry about the facilities or equipment will allow McLaughlin the opportunity to assure the public that the department is providing the best services to the residents of Topsham.

McLaughlin has already sat down and talked to a large number of the firefighters, and he plans on meeting all of them to get a sense for what has worked and what might need to be changed. The most important thing, he said, is progressing with the times.

“Topsham is growing, and as the community grows, the fire department is going to have to grow, and we’ll address that as it comes up,” he said. “We need to make sure that as (Topsham) grows, we grow in whatever facet that may be.”

McLaughlin said the fire station is always open and he invites people to come introduce themselves and see how the department goes about keeping the community safe each day.

And he said he’s looking forward to seeing everyone on April 20 outside the Topsham Public Library for “Big Truck Day.”




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