After more than a year leading the Watertown Fire Department, Ryan Nicholson officially became Fire Chief on July 17. He has plans for the department, and seeks to continue efforts started by Fire Chiefs who came before him.
Firefighting runs in Nicholson’s family, and often visited fire stations when he was young. He credits his uncle, Michael, who encouraged him to aim high when he joined the Fire Department in 2006.
“My uncle was a captain at the time,” he said. “Early on, my uncle encouraged me to seek promotion,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson’s career could have taken a different path. In college he studied criminal justice and he decided he would take both the fire and police Civil Service exams and keep taking them until he got a job. The Fire exam came up first, and he joined the Watertown Fire Department.
His first 2.5 years were spent working on an ambulance, which Nicholson said was a good experience because there are a lot of responsibilities, and he got to treat patients and interact with the public.
In 2011 he was promoted to lieutenant, and in 2013 he became a captain. His uncle was promoted to deputy chief, but shortly afterward he was diagnosed with cancer and had to retire. He passed away in 2013.
“As he was dying, I made a promise to him that we would get a Nicholson in the corner office,” he recalled.
On his way to becoming chief, Nicholson said he probably held every position in the department. At 38, he is not quite Watertown’s youngest chief. The man who appointed him, Mario Orangio, was 37 when he got the top job.
Nicholson credits Orangio for helping him advance in the department.
“Chief Orangio promoted me the first couple times,” Nicholson said. “He saw I was motivated and gave me more responsibility.”
When he was captain, Nicholson was assigned to be the Fire Prevention Officer. In that position he worked a lot with the public. He restarted programs where the Fire Department would visit schools through the SAFE program, and also installed smoke detectors in homes of seniors, and visited the Senior Center on a monthly basis.
Bob Quinn became Chief following Orangio’s retirement in 2016 after his diagnoses of cancer. Nicholson said Quinn did a lot to improve firefighter safety, including getting machines to clean their uniforms after a fire, and a second set of clothing. Plus, the workout facilities at the Fire Station were modernized.
Personally, Quinn helped prepare Nicholson for the administrative side of leadership and mentored him.
“I still talk to him regularly,” Nicholson said. “He taught me about administration. He moved me up to Staff Service Officer and entrusted me to make a lot of decisions and empowered me to do so.”
In 2019, Nicholson was appointed Deputy Chief. When Watertown added the Assistant Fire Chief position in 2020, Nicholson became the first person appointed to hold the position. When Quinn retired at the end of April 2022, Nicholson was appointed Provisional Fire Chief. City Manager George Proakis made the promotion permanent after the City did a Fire Chief search.
One of the first big moves he will be able to make is to make the other interim promotions permanent to fill in the Fire Department’s leadership.
“Promotions have been held up, from Assistant Chief down to lieutenant,” Nicholson said.
Staffing is a concern for Nicholson. Watertown is getting bigger population-wise and in terms of the number and size of buildings.
“It’s a growing city and it’s always a challenge to provide the very best services we can,” he said.
Adding more staff would help provide medical services that have increasingly become the most common call for firefighters. Last year, the Watertown Fire Department responded to about 7,000 calls, of which 4,000 were medical calls. Watertown’s ambulance covered 2,500 of the calls, and the others were handled by private ambulances, Nicholson said.
In 2017, Watertown introduced an Advanced Life Support ambulance, which run by paramedics who can do things like administer medicine and use a cardiac monitor. However, maintaining enough qualified paramedics to run it has been difficult.
“It is a little challenging with retention and recruitment,” Nicholson said. “It is not just Watertown that has a shortage of paramedics. It’s nationwide.”
When Watertown does not have the paramedics, they will contract out to private ambulance companies, and the WFD runs a Basic Life Support ambulance, a step below ALS.
Nicholson has applied for a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant from the federal government which if awarded would provide funding for four firefighters for three years of salary and benefits. After that the City would have to take over funding the positions. Watertown received a SAFER Grant in 2016 under Orangio, which helped start the ALS ambulance program.
Adding four more firefighters would allow each of the WFD’s four groups to have one additional member, and put more fire vehicles into service.
“I would like to man one or both ladder trucks,” Nicholson said. “As the City develops around us it is necessary for us to keep pace and provide quality services.”
Nicholson also hoped to reduce the process of hiring a firefighter so that Watertown can find new recruits in a very competitive market.
Nicholson also thanked his own family, his wife Jen and their two children.
“(Jen) was at my academy graduation in ’06,” he said. “We had just started dating around then.”
He said that they have allowed him to do the studying necessary for each of his promotions, and noted that finding the time has been more challenging as his family grew. He was still single when he went through the process of becoming a lieutenant, which made it easy to find time.
“They have been through the whole process,” Nicholson said. “When I was going for captain my son was young, He was in a car seat next to me when I was studying.”
This time around, his children are older, and he wants to spend time with them.
“I studied before they were awake and after they go to sleep,” Nicholson said.