Editor's note: A correction has been made to this article. Garrett grew up in Gum Springs in Fairfax County.
WINCHESTER — New Fire and Rescue Chief William A. Garrett knows firefighters have a slim margin of error.
“If we don’t get it right people die,” Garrett told about 100 people at Rouss City Hall on Monday after being sworn in. “That is our reality and that is what we have to be prepared for. That has always been my approach to this profession and it will be my approach as the fire chief of the city of Winchester.”
Garrett, who was accompanied to the swearing in by his wife Lauretta, 19-year-old son Joshua and 18-year-old daughter Whitney, comes from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, where he was hired in 1989 and most recently served as deputy chief.
Garrett, 51, was selected following a nationwide search that resulted in 57 applications from 20 states, according to city spokeswoman Amy Simmons. His annual salary will be $110,000.
“I’m thrilled and excited to have Chief Garrett,” said City Manager Eden Freeman, who hired Garrett after he was recommended by a group of community representatives, local firefighters, management experts and city officials. “He had a lengthy retirement of a few days, and he’s ready to hit the ground running.”
Garrett replaces Allen W. Baldwin, who served as chief from 2013 through December when he took a job as an assistant chief with the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department. Former Chief Frank E. Wright and Scott Kensinger, Winchester emergency management coordinator, served as interim chiefs.
Garrett promised a collaborative, inclusive approach that includes getting input from community residents and working with Winchester volunteer firefighters and area fire departments like Frederick County’s.
“To the citizens of the city of Winchester, I want to let you know that I am all in on the city’s mission of providing a safe, sustainable environment and working to improve our quality of life,” he said. “I’m excited to become a part of this community.”
Garrett referenced the changing nature of firefighting, which is now primarily focused on responding to crashes and medical calls rather than fires due to stricter building codes and modernized sprinkler systems. In 2017, Winchester firefighters responded to 6,616 calls with just four major fires.
In an interview after his remarks, Garrett addressed another changing aspect of the profession: a shrinking number of volunteers because of increased job and family commitments and training requirements. As the number of volunteers has shrunk, communities like Winchester, which is growing, are relying more on paid firefighters.
The department has about 70 paid firefighters and roughly 20 volunteers who respond to at least 24 calls annually and complete a minimum of 24 hours of annual training. In 2001, there were 39 paid firefighters and 103 volunteers.
Garrett, who began his career as a volunteer in 1988, said recruitment and retention of volunteers will be a priority, but he needs more time on the job to develop specific strategies. In February, he joined an International Association of Fire Fighters committee exploring ways to address the volunteer shortage.
“We’ll figure out how to make those challenges opportunities, and we’ll figure out a program that makes it advantageous for both groups involved, for the city and the citizens,” he said. “That’s on me to do and work through volunteer leadership to establish that.”
Garrett, who comes from an approximately 1,500-firefighter department, said that although Fairfax’s department is far bigger than Winchester’s, there are many common denominators to running a department. At first, he will commute from Fairfax, but he plans to eventually move to Winchester and is looking forward to introducing himself to residents in the upcoming months. An open house is planned, although a date has not been set.
Garrett is Winchester’s first black fire chief and its only African American firefighter. Approximately 9% of Winchester’s population is African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Seventeen percent of the population is Latino, but the only Latino firefighter left within the last two years to take a job in Florida to be closer to family, according to city Communications Director Amy Simmons. Three of the department’s firefighters are women.
Garrett said he’ll consult with Freeman about recruiting minorities and women, and he emphasized the importance of having a department whose membership is reflective of the community it serves.
“That is truly an indicator of the health of a community,” said Garrett, whose duties in Fairfax included being an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor. “There’s no good reason why we wouldn’t want to make that happen, but the city manager hasn’t given me my marching orders yet.”
Among those in the audience for the swearing-in ceremony was Fairfax County Deputy Fire Chief Willie Bailey Jr., a colleague and friend of Garrett’s since 1991. After the ceremony, Bailey said he knew shortly after meeting Garrett that he would eventually become a chief.
Bailey described Garrett as ambitious, but caring. Bailey said Garrett took college classes — Garrett earned his bachelor of arts in Spanish at George Mason University in 2009 — during his time off, and helped colleagues seeking additional training or studying for promotional tests.
“He’s a forward-thinking guy. He’s going to bring a lot of new ideas here,” Bailey said. “But at the same time, he knows he has to take his time to make sure he’s not moving too quick.”
Garrett’s spoke for about 15 minutes after being sworn in. He joked that his wife — an ex-Marine and 25-year Fairfax County police officer who graduated from the academy with Winchester Police Chief John Piper — vowed to shock him with her Taser if he spoke too long.
Garrett said his character was molded by growing up in Gum Springs in Fairfax County started by former slaves of George Washington who were freed after his death. He said he also relied on his Christian beliefs and the support of his wife and family. Garrett said he was grateful that his mother Judith Garrett, who has been ill, got a chance to see him get the job.
“I’m a values-driven person. My faith, my family and my relationships in my profession are all very important and guide me,” he said. “I will commit myself to exceeding your expectations.”