Warren’s longest serving and arguably most beloved fire chief will leave the force at the end of October, ending a nearly 30-year career fighting fires and saving lives here.
Chief Al Galinelli said it is time for him to leave and with the department in need of some change, he said, he believes it is time there was a new person in his role.
“It’s been a long run,” he said. But “I’m proud of what I’ve done. I would never think of myself as a great chief. I think I was a good chief.”
Chief Galinelli said Friday that he was trying to keep news of his departure low-key for now, but word started getting out this week. He said he will stay on until Friday, Oct. 27 and in the meantime, he is working with Warren Town Manager Jan Reitsma to form a three-person committee to review applicants for his post, from within the department. Unlike other departments in Warren, the town charter requires that Warren hire the fire chief from within the ranks, leaving the hiring responsibility to the manager.
“I asked that they keep that in” when the charter was being reviewed two years ago, the chief said. “We’re a volunteer department; it’s a fragile thing. If you bring in someone from the outside, it doesn’t always work and you want the membership to be comfortable.”
Warren was a vastly different place when Chief Galinelli succeeded John Conley in July 1988. Back then the chief’s position was part time, and he or she was hired by the town council. Chief Galinelli was appointed midway into the council’s term, and he couldn’t be sure he would be re-appointed after the next council came in. But he made it, continuing to work at his main job, as a captain on the Navy station fire squad in Newport.
“When I started I thought if I could get three years I’d be good. Then it was five years and I started thinking, ‘Maybe I can keep this thing going.’”
In 1995, the town passed a charter that changed the department in key ways — first, it made his position full time and second, it required hiring a chief from within the department, taking the responsibility out of the council’s hands and putting it in the town manager’s. He left his job in Newport and has been full-time in Warren ever since.
As the years went by, the chief and his staff grew the department in new directions, greatly expanding the number of paid professionals on the rescue squad — from six when he started, there are now about 60 EMTs. It is now recognized as one of the state’s top departments.
Chief Galinelli fought over the years for the best equipment and believes Warren, now a model for volunteer forces across the state, is among the best equipped and most responsive forces in the Ocean State, paid or volunteer.
“I think the changes we’ve made on the fire side have been tremendous. Good equipment, nothing but the best and good training. No one could ever say that I haven’t tried to give them the best,” he said.
He was also able to keep Warren all-volunteer, a feat which he said some old-timers told him would be next to impossible when he started. Today, there are about 175 volunteers on the force.
“There are more politics with a volunteer department, but it’s different. Dealing with volunteers is a little bit easier than with a paid staff, because there you’ve got unions and other things involved. Whereas with volunteers, they want to be a part and it’s their town. There are mothers and fathers who have come up to me and said, ‘He (their son) knows more about the Town of Warren than he did when he came up through high school.’ They learn about the town and they become a part of it.”
As for the change he believes the department needs going forward, Chief Galinelli declined to talk specifics, saying he thinks it better to let the new person figure out the department’s course.
“They’ll know,” he said when asked what needs to be done.
Will miss it
Though he said he won’t miss the work he believes should be done internally, Chief Galinelli said he will miss the camaraderie with his volunteers, working with the townspeople, and the simple honor of being able to serve.
The fire service is in his blood, and he recalls many high moments: He has helped deliver three or four babies, one of whom later became a volunteer on the department.
Another good memory is the first time he used an AED, or Automatic External Defibrillator. Warren led the way across the state in the training and use of AEDs, and the first time he ever used one, in the late 1990s, he helped save a life. A custodian at the Kickemuit Middle School suffered a heart attack on the job and while staff and teachers tended to the man, the chief responded and was the first on the scene. He grabbed the AED out of his truck, used it on the man and was able to help stabilize him.
“He recovered and was able to live a few more years after that,” he said.
More recently, he and members of the police department were able to save the life of a man who had poured gasoline on himself and threatened to light himself afire. When told that several people suggested he be honored for his role in the incident, he shook his head:
“Just part of the job.”
Overall, there are many more high points than low, he said, and he has no doubt he will miss the force. His job has been a 24/7 pursuit, and he’s long gotten used to sleeping with a radio next to his bed.
His plans now? “I want to leave on a high note. I just want to take some time off and regroup. I would like to continue teaching for the fire academy. I would like to hopefully be a valuable resource to the department. It’s in my blood.”
He will also continue to volunteer after his departure — “I started at Engine 1 and I’ll finish up there” — but he won’t miss 3 a.m. calls.
“I’ll still listen to the radio, but I don’t have to leave it on at night anymore.”