It will probably be early next year before Omaha has a new fire chief.
Before Mayor Jean Stothert begins a national search to fill the Fire Department's top spot, she is working with the city's Human Resources Department to make some tweaks to the job description. Those changes will need to be approved by the Personnel Board before the job is advertised and the city can begin narrowing the list of candidates.
Stothert told The World-Herald that she is taking a careful read of the requirements and making sure they stack up with those of other departments. One area of consideration is the educational requirements, which could be raised to include a master's degree or other certifications.
“We wanted to look at other cities, comparable cities, and look at the job descriptions of their fire chiefs,” Stothert said.
An interim chief, Bernard Kanger, has been filling in since Aug. 26, when Chief Mike McDonnell agreed to a tentative retirement deal and went on paid administrative leave. McDonnell's departure appeared to put a cap on months of tensions between him and Stothert, but the situation wasn't resolved until Sept. 16, when the two agreed to a revised deal.
McDonnell will officially retire Nov. 8 with an annual pension of about $124,000. His exit deal blocks the mayor from laying off firefighters or taking rigs out of service until after Dec. 21.
Stothert said Human Resources officials are preparing a draft of the job description, which she will review before posting it for applicants. The opening is expected to attract close to 50 applications, which will probably be reviewed by the end of November.
Then the top candidates will go through testing before being narrowed to a small number of finalists, who will interview with the mayor.
Whoever gets the job will inherit a department facing significant budget problems.
McDonnell and Stothert had squabbled over the department's finances, with McDonnell saying the $90.6 million that Stothert set aside for 2014 wasn't enough to avoid significant cuts. Reductions suggested to meet that budget include laying off 16 firefighters, demoting eight and pulling two rigs from service.
Kanger said he is interested in the position and plans to apply. He has been with the department since 1991, most recently as a battalion chief.
In his first weeks on the job, he has been finding ways to cut spending, since the department is expected to be $6.5 million over budget this year. So far, he has figured out how to save about $300,000 by moving people from the department's fire prevention bureau to fire suppression and by shifting assistant fire chiefs from a 24-hour schedule to a 40-hour work week.
Kanger said firefighters understand that adjustments need to be made — and that more could be ahead if the city is unsuccessful in getting some concessions from the firefighters union.
“Anytime there's a change in leadership, it's difficult, with growing pains and things like that,” he said. “It's totally normal, that's just part of it.
“But I've got a lot of support from these folks. They understand I'm looking out for them as well as the interest of the citizens of the community.”