Chief Christopher Garrison, Sun Prairie Fire Dept.
By Pete Wicklund
As many in fire prevention have noted over the years, when it comes to the fire service it’s the work on the fire ground that gets all the glory. So when a chief comes along who puts fire prevention and public safety education at the forefront, it understandably can cause a buzz.
In fact, one of the first things that Sun Prairie Fire Chief Christopher Garrison told his firefighters after taking over as the department’s chief in late 2015 was “you guys (and gals) are not firefighters, you are fire prevention technicians.”
“I never heard chief say that before. I never heard a chief acknowledge the fact that our biggest job is to go out and teach people or to go out and do the prevention side of things,” said Mark Mlekush, the department’s fire inspector. “He’s followed that up with his actions.”
In appreciation for all his efforts, the WSFIA honored Garrison with its Fire Chief of the Year award at the 2017 Fire Professionals Conference banquet, held Oct. 26 at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Green Bay.
Garrison oversees a combination department in northeast Dane County that protects the City and Town of Sun Prairie and the towns of Burke and Bristol.
Mlekush and Lt. Becky Gruber, the department’s community risk reduction officer, note that Garrison hit the ground running when he came on as the department’s full-time chief.
“Chief Garrison has held his position for a very short 1.5 years and in that time has implemented more change in the area of fire prevention and education than I have seen any chief do in my nearly 20-year career in the fire service,” Mlekush said.
Garrison has created an atmosphere where efforts at fire and safety education have dovetailed with keeping the department center stage in the community.
That has been done through a variety of ways, including a local radio show that Gruber and Garrison host every other week on a local broadcast outlet; allowing Gruber to coordinate Meals on Wheels deliveries via department apparatus; Garrison and firefighters taking an active part in a summer program for youth at the local YMCA; and instituting a citizens’ academy where community members can learn about the department as well as about fire safety.
Garrison has also worked hard on more traditional aspects of the fire chief’s job. When Garrison was hired, Mayor Paul Esser told him he would have a “once in a career” opportunity to manage the transition of an all-volunteer department to one that would increasingly be staffed by career personnel based on the rapid growth take place in Sun Prairie. Garrison has quickly moved in that direction by adding staff at Sun Prairie Station 2 on the city’s west side.
He also pushed to get the department licensed as an Emergency Medical Responder service, so that fire crews can back up Sun Prairie EMS, which is a separate department.
Garrison has also worked with Madison College (MATC) and the local school district to implement a program to allow high school seniors to earn credit toward an associate’s degree (hopefully in the fire service), secure fire certifications while still in high school and to spend time during the week at the fire stations, which Mlekush describes as a great recruitment tool for the department’s volunteer ranks.
And, with Chief Garrison’s Support; SPFD and the City of Sun Prairie applied for and have been granted “Plan Review Status” through the State of Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services. With this program, and due to the exponential growth and development in the city, the fire and building inspection departments will have a “hands on” approach to every aspect of planning and new building construction via the plan review process. This involvement has already resulted in increased and enhanced emergency access to multiple structures within the City of Sun Prairie, Mlekush and Gruber said.
While his staff and city leaders are quick to praise Garrison for his accomplishments in a short time, he is quick to deflect the praise toward the members of the department.
“I’m very humbled by this opportunity. This award is not mine, it’s the department’s,” Garrison said at the WSFIA banquet. “I have the greatest staff in the world, I work with the greatest people in the world.”
“You have to have people behind you and you have to count on your people and you have to believe in your people. And you have to believe in yourself and what you’re doing.”
Garrison also implored other chiefs to follow his lead.
“To preach fire prevention and public education is what every chief in the country needs to do,” he said. “All of us need to check our egos at the door and let the fire prevention and the public education people do their jobs. And that’s all I do, I allow the talent within our organization to do what they need to do.”