Gainesville welcomes new fire chief

After a months-long search, Gainesville has hired an external candidate to take over as permanent fire chief starting in March.

Fire services veteran Joseph W. Dixon Sr., who has most recently been the fire chief in Goldsboro, N.C., will start as the head of Gainesville Fire Rescue (GFR) on March 15.

“I am very excited about joining the team,” Dixon said on a video-conference Wednesday. 

In introducing Dixon, Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman said the city is eager to have Dixon join the 198-member department and noted Dixon’s long history in the fire service, which started in the early ‘90s in Maryland.

“I felt his background, his knowledge, the idea of bringing in some new ideas can only help the department move forward,” Feldman said.

In addition to decades of experience, Dixon has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in executive leadership in fire and rescue from Waldorf College. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, which trains senior fire and emergency management officers in how to deal with issues or problems within their communities.

Dixon was selected from a candidate field that included the current interim Fire Chief JoAnne Rice and Assistant Fire Chiefs Stephen Hesson and Joseph Hillhouse.

JoAnne Rice

“I have hired a lot of people in my capacity as city manager…,” Feldman said. “The first and foremost quality that I look for is passion. Everything else falls into place when you have an individual who has passion for the job they are getting ready to undertake. I saw that with Chief Dixon.”

Rice, the first woman to lead the department as interim chief, will retire on Feb. 7 after more than 30 years with GFR.

Hesson, who is also the fire marshal, will serve in the interim chief role between Rice’s retirement and Dixon’s arrival and will be the first African American to lead the department on an interim basis, said Rossana Passaniti, public information officer for the city.

Dixon will then become the first African American appointed permanently to the position of fire chief in Gainesville, Passaniti said.

The existing diversity of GFR employees was one of the things that Dixon said drew him to the job along with the size of the department and the city leadership, including Feldman.

Dixon, who helped develop the national diversity standards for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said part of his job would be to support a diverse workforce.

“[Prospective employees] need to know if they can do the job, they are welcome within the Gainesville Fire Rescue department,” Dixon said.

Continuing to develop the skills and expertise of employees will be a focus of Dixon’s management.

“I value talent and putting people in a position to succeed,” he said. “I can’t be successful as fire chief if a firefighter is not successful or an engineer or a captain.”

The incoming chief said he expects to start his tenure at GFR with an organizational assessment, looking at the mission, vision and values of the department.

“Some people feel they have to making changes for sake of making changes, but you have to come in and get a temperature of what’s going on in the organization,” Dixon said. “My job is to make sure the organization is who we say we are.”

As part of his departmental assessment, Dixon said he wants to look at ways to improve on Gainesville’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating. The city has a current ISO rating of 2, which is a high mark on the outside agency’s 10-to-1 rating scale for fire department performance, but Dixon wants to examine “what is going to get it to a 1.”

The ISO is used by some insurance companies to assess risk and set fire insurance premiums. As a general rule, the cost of insurance goes down as the ISO rating improves.

Another priority for the incoming chief will be helping plan a larger role for the fire department in the city’s community health outreach, Feldman said.

This includes increasing the existing community resource paramedicine program, which most recently staged a series of mobile flu clinics in the city’s neighborhoods.

The program, which Feldman described as “robust,” also “clearly needs expansion,” but the city manager acknowledged “it will take some dollars to do.”

Feldman said Dixon and the city will be looking at innovative ways to address health inequities in the city and answer questions about GFR’s future role, including, “How do we bring health care to vulnerable communities that don’t have primary access for it?”

“The fire department is an asset for moving the needle on community health issues,” Feldman said.

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