Modernizing a department: Chief John D’Amato prepares to leave post

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO| John D’Amato sums up his tenure as Shelter Island’s fire chief for the past two years.

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO| John D’Amato sums up his tenure as Shelter Island’s fire chief for the past two years.

A little past 9 p.m. on a sleepy Wednesday night just about a year ago, Shelter Island Fire Department Chief John D’Amato got a page that left no doubt of its importance.

“When I get that kind of page, I know something’s burning,” the chief said last week.

Within minutes he rolled up to the Belle Crest Inn, seeing flames shooting through the roof. His first duty was to get solid confirmation that all people were out of the historic structure perched above North Ferry Road.

The next priorities were to protect his firefighters and save the structure. Some firefighters wanted to attack the interior fire aggressively, but Chief D’Amato calmly gave them a parameter: If they didn’t have the fire controlled from the inside within a specific time, they were to exit the building and fight it from the outside.

“It’s a fine line,” he said. “You want to be aggressive but not put your men in danger.”

The fire was controlled and put out and, although severely damaged, the Belle Crest was still standing. “I was really proud,” the chief said. “It was the first opportunity for a lot of younger members to see a real deal fire and they responded well.”

It was also an example of the leadership Chief D’Amato brought to his job.

As he prepares to leave his post late next month, turning the reins over to First Assistant Chief Will Anderson, the chief is confident he’s leaving the department in better shape than he found it.

He summered on the Island at his uncle’s house and when he retired as a director at AT&T 12 years ago, moved here full time and joined the department. “I wanted to give back,” he said.

Moving quickly through the ranks, he became chief two years ago. Trained as an executive, Chief D’Amato began to input several methods to modernize the workings of the department, concentrating on data collection and analysis and bringing “rigor and documentation” to training and maintenance. He was instrumental in getting the Length of Service Award Program for his department and began scrupulous record-keeping to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, computerizing many functions.

He was more than a little amazed that many individuals running the district are not computer literate.

His work has paid off, with the department improving its rating with the Insurance Service Office. The ISO rates fire departments by evaluating the whole organization. In turn, all insurance companies use ISO ratings to calculate fire insurance rates. “Better ISO ratings, lower insurance rates,” the Chief explained.

Another point of pride is changing the culture of the department. “When I came in, the department was an insular organization,” he said.

He quickly moved to institute community outreach on several fronts, one being to provide smoke alarms and batteries to seniors “and those who can’t afford them,” he said. He’s moved to have green and white reflector address signs for houses, starting with department members and “the frail and elderly,” who are on a list to be given special services in times of emergencies.

“They’re not the prettiest signs,” he said. “But God forbid you need help on a dark Shelter Island night, and if we find you because of the reflective signs, you’ll think they’re the prettiest signs you’ve ever seen.”

Leadership means instilling pride in people, and the chief said he’s fought to overcome stereotypes that firefighters are a bunch of guys who do nothing but hang out at the bar at the firehouse.

“You have young guys who put in hundreds of hours to get qualified and hundreds of more hours to stay qualified,” he said, and they don’t deserve to be stereotyped.

But it takes constant reinforcement to get across the idea “that you’re not just Joe Jones. You are Joe Jones of the Shelter Island Fire Department” he said. “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.”

Leaving his post, Chief D’Amato wishes the community would get more involved in the affairs of the district. He said too many people confuse the fire district with the fire department, when they are two separate entities, with the district’s Board of Fire Commissioners controlling the purse strings.

Many people, he said, think that to be elected to the district board they have to be a firefighter. But that’s untrue, the same, he said, as being elected to the school board doesn’t require a candidate to be a teacher.

He’d like to see people from the business community and other walks of life on the district board. “They’re handling a $700,000 budget, buying vehicles that cost half a million dollars, and no one even comes to the meetings,” he said.

Chief D’Amato will continue to serve his community as a firefighter, a member of the Lions club and the Shelter Island Historical Society.

But he admits he’ll miss being chief.

“It’s a good feeling to be associated with people you respect,” he said.