Mark Sgantas has been the steady hand on the wheel of the fire truck and the calm, collected presence at the scene of the blaze for 36 years, including a dozen as Stowe’s fire chief.
Now Sgantas is looking at retiring, sooner than later, and Stowe officials are looking at the possibility of hiring a full-time fire chief.
As the Stowe Select Board crafts the town budget for the fiscal year that starts next July, it will consider adding the salary of a full-time fire chief, somewhere between $59,000 and $82,000 per year.
The end of an era
Sgantas, 61, joined the Stowe Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter 36 years ago, after seeing an ad in a newspaper.
“I walked in and ended up staying and here we are,” Sgantas said.
Twelve or 13 years ago, Sgantas can’t remember which, he was nominated to be chief, and elected by the town’s firefighters. Department officers — chief, first assistant chief and second assistant chief — are elected for one-year terms.
Taking on the chief’s role was exciting, but also scary, Sgantas said.
“When you’re a firefighter, you just show up to the fire station. You have a responsibility but you don’t have the responsibility with everything. The buck stops with you when you’re chief,” he said. “Like everything, you look at things as a challenge and you tackle those challenges. That’s what firefighting is.”
Over nearly four decades, Sgantas has saved lives, saved buildings and battled blazes that killed people, such as the 2015 fire on Edson Hill Road that killed a Stowe woman.
“I think I’ve put my time in. I think it’s time for a change and new leadership and fresh eyes,” Sgantas said. “It’s time for me to make a change.”
About a year ago, he and Town Manager Charles Safford discussed the idea of hiring a fire chief, as Sgantas said no other Stowe firefighters wanted to be chief.
“There’s a lot to being a department head,” Safford said, including training, vehicle maintenance and administrative work on top of regular firefighting duties. “What I’ve heard from the officers and the firefighters is that it’s challenging enough to do the training and show up for fires, but more than you might expect someone to do to actually take care of all the administrative details” on a volunteer’s stipend.
Sgantas says there’s a lot more to being fire chief than just what’s in the job description.
“I think it takes being a good listener, and listening to not only what’s going on in the town government but your members in the department and your public and knowing when to speak,” he said.
He does his best to set an example for the rest of the crew.
“You can’t ask somebody to do something unless you’re willing to do it yourself. If you can do it, then you can ask other people, but it can’t be a dictatorship. That doesn’t work. It’s all about teams and it takes everybody to get the job done,” Sgantas said.
“That’s what I’ve always loved about the fire services. Everybody coming together from different parts, different services. Guys just show up and boom, it all goes together. Everything works,” he said.
Sgantas says he’s unlikely to remain part of the Stowe Fire Department once he retires; he doesn’t want his presence to influence how the new chief will do the job, and he wants time to reconnect with his wife, Judy, and son, Jan-Michael, who’s on the fire department too, and spend time chasing other pursuits. Sgantas is a full-time cardiac nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and has a camp in Maine.
“It is one of the greatest jobs in the world,” Sgantas said of firefighting.
Both the Stowe Fire Department and Stowe Emergency Medical Services rely heavily on volunteer firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians.
Stowe EMS has a full-time chief, Scott Brinkman, and a handful of paid paramedics.
Currently, no one on Stowe Fire Department is full-time.
The departments share a recruiting officer, a town government job held by Tony Carniglia, who’s a volunteer with both departments; he encourages new members to join.
Sgantas says the Stowe Fire Department still needs volunteers.
“We’re getting a few people here and there. We’re just not getting the big numbers,” Sgantas said. “Regardless of whether they have a new fire chief, it’s still going to need volunteers.”
Brinkman agreed: “We don’t have as many volunteers as we used to, and we are utilizing paid per-diem employees in addition to full-time staff to keep our duty roster full in order to maintain our readiness. I believe we will continue having volunteers, and having a place for volunteers.”
Brinkman said the long road to certification as an emergency medical technician or paramedic can be an obstacle.
“It’s increasingly a challenge to get people to make that level of commitment,” Safford said.