In just a year, Philly's newcomer fire chief has made a mark

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel poses inside fire department headquarters in Philadelphia, Pa., on May 19, 2017. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia can be a tough town for outsiders, and it doesn't get much more outside than being the first newcomer ever appointed to lead the 146-year-old Philadelphia Fire Department.

That’s the hot seat Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel found himself in one year ago May 16, fresh off a move from Virginia, where he had been deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security. He had been appointed by Mayor Kenney to lead a 2,600-member department that averages 1,000 EMS and fire runs a day.

When Thiel’s appointment was announced, the Philadelphia Firefighters' and Paramedics' Union, Local 22, said it would have preferred someone from within the department’s ranks. Club Valiants, the city’s association of black firefighters, said acting Commissioner Derrick Sawyer, who is black and had been with the department since 1985, should have been given the permanent post.

Although the unions weren't waiting to give Thiel a hug at the front door of fire headquarters, Harold B. Hairston, who served from 1992 to 2004 as the city’s first black fire commissioner — and someone whom Thiel considered an “icon” in the field — made him feel welcome. 

“He called me, wished me the best, and got right into giving me the lay of the land,” recalled Thiel, now 44. “He offered me the opportunity to share what he knew, and I was looking forward to taking advantage of it.”

Six months later, Thiel spoke at Hairston’s funeral.

“It was a real honor, but I would have much rather not had that honor,” he said. “I would prefer that I could call him at any time.”

A native of Chicago, Thiel has worked in fire and emergency services in Maryland, North Carolina, and Arizona in addition to Virginia. He has a master's degree in public administration from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and has taken postgraduate courses in public administration and public policy. A divorced father of two teens, he enjoys scuba diving, bicycling, and martial arts.

In his first year in Philadelphia, Thiel had to cope with the Democratic National Convention; the NFL draft; the death of Firefighter Gabriel Lee from heart disease while on duty at a firehouse in July; and the release of local and federal reports on Firefighter Joyce Craig’s death in a December 2014 house fire.

He has visited all 63 of the city’s firehouses “to get the ground truth,” he said, and has had meals at many, but not all – yet.

“I had to slow down,” he said.

Within the department, Thiel is making a reputation as a leader who knows how to fight for resources. He’s updated equipment and hired 40 new firefighters. If City Council approves Mayor Kenney’s 2018 budget, Thiel will hire an additional 30 firefighters, 42 medics, and four training officers.

The budget also calls for $12 million for new Fire Department vehicles, $6 million for property upgrades, and $2 million for technology updates. And the five-year capital budget plan calls for a new training facility to replace the current one, which dates to 1980.

Andy Thomas, president of Local 22, said Thiel “is a breath of fresh air” who has been “great for the Fire Department.”

“With his expertise in budgets and things like that, he’s been able to get through a lot of the bureaucracy in the city,” Thomas said.

Club Valiants president Capt. Lisa Forrest said Thiel’s push to get the department the best equipment is admirable, as is his practice of bringing all stakeholders to the table, but she said it’s too soon to judge his leadership.

“I’m going to be honest, it’s like a relationship. This is the honeymoon,” Forrest said. “Ask me around this time next year, and we’ll see how it is.”

Noel Bermudez, president of the local Spanish American Professional Firefighter Association, said that Thiel has improved morale in the department and that he hopes the commissioner will continue to improve diversity as well.

Going forward, Thiel wants to double down on prevention initiatives, such as handing out smoke alarms while neighbors are outside watching firefighters battle a 3 a.m. blaze instead of the next day.

“It’s a big event when there’s a fire in a neighborhood,” he said. “That’s when the window is open.”

Thiel also wants to better help connect survivors of fires with social services offered in the city, for what he calls “360-degree care.”

“We need to help prevent people from having an event, take care of them during the event if they have one -- and we still think we have a role afterwards,” he said.

Last year, fire deaths in the city rose to 21 from a historic low of 15 in 2015. One-third of the 2016 deaths were from fires caused by electrical wiring, and six were from careless smoking. Thirteen occurred in homes without working smoke alarms.

What sets Philadelphia apart from other complex urban environments is the mix of history and modernity in the architecture, Thiel said, and that vacant buildings here may not be as empty as they seem.  

“The default sense is, if there’s a vacant building, there’s probably not someone in there,” Thiel said. “Here, that’s just not true. For us, the odds that someone will be inside are different, and their lives are important to us, too.”

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