Fire Chief Czerwinski to retire after 32 years in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski is getting ready to cap a 45-year career, taking with him a wealth of knowledge and training.

But enough about him.

"This job isn't about Bob Czerwinski," he said. "This job is about the guys who go out everyday fighting fires."

Everybody likes to leave a place better than they found it, he said, and he said his legacy rests in the current team and the service they provide.

Czerwinski, 62, started his career as a volunteer firefighter in New York, and spent the last 32 years at the Pittsfield Fire Department. For the past nine, he served as its chief.

He'll step down in July, leaving enough time for him to march in one last Fourth of July parade.

"It's time," he said of his impending retirement.

And as he readies to retire, recent tragedies weigh heavily on his mind.

The city has seen two fatal fires in the past six months: One last October in which a couple died, and last month's blaze that killed three people, including twin 6-year-old boys.

Neither of those homes appeared to have had functional smoke alarms, he said, as often is the case in fire fatalities.

Check your smoke detectors regularly, he urges, and — unless you have a multiyear lithium battery, which he also recommends — replace batteries twice annually with the change of the clocks.

And families with children should conduct fire drills to make sure everyone in the home knows how to escape in the event of an overnight fire.

Building these practices into a family's annual regimen drastically increases their chance of survival, he said.

Too often people think "it's not going to happen to me." But when it comes to fire safety, he said, "too much is just enough."

Every minute counts, he said, because a fire doubles in size every minute.

"I think it's important that people understand this," he said.

He makes this plea, he said, because for a few more months "my job is to make sure people in our community are safe from fire."

And saving lives, he said, is "what this job is all about."

Decades of service

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Czerwinski started at the Pittsfield Fire Department in 1987, was promoted several times over the years and finally took reins of the department in 2010.

He has taught at trainings around the region, including for the Fire Academy and the New York State Association of Firefighters, and formerly served as head of fire science program at Berkshire Community College.

From acquiring suits and hoses to preserving salaries, "My job is to make sure they have the tools" to fight fires, he said, and to make sure the city gets a bang for the buck. And most importantly, the firefighters must be trained properly.

Not only must each individual firefighter have the skills and tools to succeed, he said, each crew must practice as a team so they're in the habit of working with the people they'll battle blazes with.

"We don't get a lot of room for screw-ups," he said. "When we respond to a fire, we have to get it right the first time, and every time."

He wears his passion for the fire service on his sleeve, and on his finger — his wedding band bears the "thin red line" that signifies a firefighter's courage. Plus, he said, the ring is designed to be nonconductive and won't damage his finger if caught on something.

'A true leader'

Mayor Linda Tyer said Czerwinski is well-recognized for his leadership throughout the state.

"I'm really going to miss him at our leadership table," she said.

"When he's on a fire scene or a rescue event, Chief Czerwinski brings years of technical experience and a deep care and concern for all involved," she said. "He's an all-around great guy."

Anne Ferin, the department's office manager, said she's worked with Czerwinski for over a decade and will miss his institutional knowledge and sense of humor.

Czerwinski has done a lot for the department that people may not realize, Deputy Chief Matthew Noyes said, because he's not one to take credit. He listens to others' ideas, he said, and then encourages them to run with them.

"A lot of what he's done has gone unnoticed," he said, calling that the "sign of a true leader."

Czerwinski said he looks back with pride at the value his department added to the community during his tenure.

The Pittsfield Fire Department provides a round-the-clock commitment to saving lives and a three-minute arrival time, he said — a service that costs the average taxpayer $159 per year. He's also fought for city dollars to maintain its fire fleet and manpower during tight financial times.

"We're doing our best to keep the fleet up to par," he said.

Personnel director Michael Taylor said he plans to hold a Civil Service assessment in early May to determine Czerwinski's replacement. The assessment will also help replace another longtime firefighter, Deputy Chief Raymond Tart, who plans to retire in July after 32 years with the department.

"We have a great pool of in-house talent," Czerwinski said, noting three deputy chiefs that could be in line for the top position.

From family time to motorcycle rides, Czerwinski plans to do something very specific with his newfound free time: "Whatever I want."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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