Shelby Township names 22-year veteran as its fire chief

By: Brad D. Bates | Shelby - Utica News | Published January 23, 2013

 James Swinkowski was sworn in as Shelby Township’s new fire chief Jan. 19 at Fire Station No. 1.

James Swinkowski was sworn in as Shelby Township’s new fire chief Jan. 19 at Fire Station No. 1.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Jim Swinkowski has been “acting” the part of Shelby Township Fire Chief since May, but as of Jan. 19, he is officially his department’s top man.

While he had been serving as the department’s acting fire chief since former Chief Gene Shepherd passed away in 2012, Swinkowski was formally sworn in as the department’s next chief Jan. 19, after the Board of Trustees offered him the position at its Jan. 15 meeting.

“Without question Mr. Jim Swinkowski is the perfect person for this job as fire chief in Shelby Township,” township Supervisor Richard Stathakis said.

“His leadership is strong. He takes the initiative, always, to get better results. In terms of execution, he establishes clear responsibilities for action with clear priorities.”

Swinkowski was offered the position after he was the leading candidate following testing conducted by the township’s police and fire civil service commission.

“I knew, when I was appointed acting chief, I would do the job because I was asked to do it,” Swinkowski said. “Back then, though, did I think I would be chief? No.

“I didn’t think I would finish No. 1 on the list. I was surprised to finish No. 1, and at that point, my wife and I had serious discussion that I might be chief.”

Swinkowski said he was still mentally digesting the notion of being the top executive of his department, and that it was a humbling notion to think he would lead his fellow firefighters.

“The hardest part was saying yes,” Swinkowski said. “Having that responsibility, I had that little knot in my stomach that it’s going to be real.

“Now all the responsibilities of the department and employees, good or bad, are mine. Now having that burden of responsibility, that it’s official, sets you back and makes you humble.”

Swinkowski has been a firefighter for 22 — he started with Shelby Township in 1991 — and he said he never thought he would work his way to the department’s top spot.

“Not in a million years,” Swinkowski said. “I can think back to the first few years, and never thought, in a million years, I’d sit in (the chief’s) seat.

“And thinking back to May of last year, I didn’t want to sit in that seat forever,” Swinkowski added. “But this summer, working with the board and making the department better for the community, I’ve got a dime in this now.

“And through the summer, with the improvements we made, it became something I need to finish, and I would like to see it through and see it finished.”

Swinkowski, who’s new contract will pay him $104,500 annually and run through Dec. 31, 2013, said he was readied for the position, whether he knew it or not, by working under Shepherd.

“With no disrespect to anyone else, I give a ton of credit to Gene, and everyone in our department would echo that,” Swinkowski said. “He taught me a lot about open communication and restoring open communication and trust with board members. It made a huge difference in the day-to-day operations.

“And seeing how he interacts with people on different levels, I don’t even know how to explain it. He was a tremendous influence on me ever since I’ve known him. He always had a unique outlook on things — very laid back and very open.”

Which is part of the reason Swinkowski’s agenda as chief includes expanding on a lot of the initiatives started by Shepherd.

“Chief Shepherd did a phenomenal job getting that transparency in there, so we can track better what we spend our money on,” Swinkowski said. “I just want to continue going forward with the path we’re setting.”

Part of that path is the Fire Department’s new capital-improvement plan, devised by Swinkowski, that will forecast future infrastructure and equipment costs and save money ahead of time to pay for items with cash rather than incurring bond debt.

While plans like that have Swinkowski optimistic about leading the department, he’s also aware of the challenges ahead.

“The economy,” Swinkowski said, when asked about the biggest challenges immediately facing his department.

“There are a lot of positive signs that business is coming back. We’re getting new construction plans, our fire marshals are busier than the last couple years, but everything we want to do for our community hinges on the housing market.

“Especially Station 5,” Swinkowski said of the financial restrictions on expanding the department with a fifth station to serve the southeast portion of Shelby Township.

“Once this economy turns around, we need to look at providing fire and EMS to the southeast. We need to keep working with the board to provide the best service to the community.”

Along with gauging the economy, Swinkowski said he’s also ready to address the challenge posed by the expiration of the township’s firefighters union contract Dec. 31, 2013.

“It’s a fine line that you’re going to walk,” Swinkowski said. “I want what’s best for the department, and that’s as far as I’m going to go.

“If the union comes up with an idea about rank structure, if it makes sense moving forward, I will help both sides moving forward. I will give my opinion equally to both sides of the table. I will give the labor attorney and the union the same answers. It will be my opinion as I see what is best for the department.”