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Fire chief search nears finish line

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Only five of the original 44 applicants remain to fill the newly created full-time paid position of River Falls fire chief. There were six, but one dropped out.

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Chris Cernohous, current volunteer fire chief and also a River Falls public works employee, is one of the remaining five.

Cernohous has been with the River Falls Fire Department for almost 15 years. He was named interim chief last year, succeeding Bob Schwalen.

River Falls Police Fire Commission Chairwoman Pat Nelson said the next search phase happened Monday.

Then, the five remaining candidates will get tours of River Falls, the remodeled fire station and be questioned by three interview panels made up of:

1) Firefighters and citizens

2) City of River Falls department heads

3) Police Fire Commission

Nelson said the first two panels will have seven or eight people. Besides Nelson, the PFC has these regular members: Carole Mottaz, Mel Germanson, Steve Leitch and Dan Vande Yacht.

St. Paul-based Springsted Inc., a public sector consulting firm, was hired to assist the PFC in the fire chief search. Next the references of each candidate will be questioned.

Nelson said the PFC should decide the week of Aug. 18, which two or three candidates will be finalists. After that, the finalist names and where they work will be announced.

Finalists will be more closely scrutinized and undergo background checks.

Springsted's Senior Vice President Sharon Klumpp said those checks, handled by a private investigator, will look into criminal and credit histories, civil judgments, verify education credentials and review driving records.

Klumpp said the finalists will also undergo an online psychological test administered by a psychologist. And the PFC will interview them for a second time.

Nelson said the aim is to hire a full-time fire chief by early fall, possibly in late September.

The RFFD will celebrate its 125th anniversary with an open house and other activities on Saturday, Sept. 25. Nelson couldn't guarantee that a fire chief will be hired by then.

She did say that a full-time paid fire chief is needed because the job has gotten more complicated as River Falls grows and state and federal regulations increase.

"The volunteer firefighters, including the chief, have done a great job, but there are only so many hours in the day to give and most of these people have full-time jobs of their own," Nelson said. "Between the new regulations, the training requirements, the billing, applying for grants, fire inspections and more it becomes overwhelming. We need to have a fire chief available during business hours as we do for our ambulance and police departments."

Nelson has been on the PFC for 14 years. She also oversees the Ambulance Commission. Last January she succeeded DeWayne Meyer as chair.

Nelson has lived in River Falls for 38 years. She owns a freelance court reporting and captioning firm in Hudson with branches in the Twin Cities and Eau Claire.

"I've found work on these commissions has been a really interesting way to learn about the workings of the police, fire and ambulance departments," she said. "And I believe when you live in a community, you should be involved in some way to make it a better place."

As a business owner, Nelson said she brings some expertise to the PFC, especially when it pertains to hiring and personnel issues.

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Phil Pfuehler
Phil Pfuehler has been editor of the River Falls Journal since 1991.
(715) 426-1050
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