For Chief Cleary, Leaving is More Bitter Than Sweet


Friday is Manchester Fire Chief Jason Cleary’s last day in his job.  His replacement, James “Jake” McNeilly of Essex, will be the eighth fire chief in about a dozen years. 

“I wasn’t expecting to leave so soon,” said Cleary, who is parting ways with Manchester after just three years.  His plan was to serve in the town for 10 years and then retire, closing out a long career in public safety largely spent in New Hampshire and Maine.  But he didn’t offer to renew his contract, nor did the town.

So, what happened?  When he interviewed in 2020, Cleary’s education at Colby College and degrees in law enforcement stood out with Select Board members who probed his experience and asked for his take on some of the unique challenges of running a fire department in a small town.  They asked about volunteer firefighters, which the department had been steadily losing for years.  They focused on Cleary’s experience with regional dispatch operations, which had been adopted in Essex and was under consideration in Manchester. 

When Cleary accepted the job, he was all in.  The Clearys sold their home in New Hampshire, purchased a new one in Gloucester, and Jason dived right in.

“I was excited,” said Cleary.  “Excited to get started.”

And there was much to do.  Fire response was on everyone’s mind, especially after the January 2019 fire at a large home at the top of University Lane, a private road off Summer Street.  

The house burned to the ground in less than an hour from a garage fire that spread throughout the house.  It was one of Manchester’s worst fires.

People wondered if the size of the municipal water pipes was the issue.  Or the water pressure within the pipes?  Was it the response time?  The bitter cold that day?  Was it all the ice on University Lane that prevented fire trucks from getting all the way up the road to the home?  Was the road too steep?  Or too narrow?

Like any “perfect storm” event, it was a combination of all these factors that led to the dangerous five-alarm blaze.  Thankfully, no one was injured.  But as Jason Cleary started in his role, reading the reports, and meeting his new staff, he focused on getting Manchester’s fire department into the right posture, giving it the best chance of never having to face that level of event again.  And the town had his back.

Three short years later, that’s all changed.  Cleary found himself on the wrong side of the boards, with public squabbles with how to reconcile finances with a vision for the future of a department facing new state mandates for staffing and training, replacing aging equipment and vehicles, modernizing an old firehouse, and yes, helping the town with its controversial move to regional dispatch.

Two In, Two Out

Ironically, Cleary’s Number One goal was to bring consistency to the department. 

“There had been a lot of fire chiefs before me, and I wanted to bring stability to the department,” said Cleary, who has a fire service Maltese Cross emblem tattooed on his right forearm.  For him, “stability” meant consistency—of systems, of training, of staff, of safety policies, inspections, fire prevention, and of ambulance operations that make up about 75 percent of calls into the department.    

But almost as soon as he started, Cleary ran into challenges with reconciling budgets with his vision.  Small-town fire departments that depend on volunteer firefighters are losing them, and Manchester was no different.  Cleary insisted that Manchester comply with federal fire staffing protocols—adopted by Massachusetts in 2018—that require four certified firefighters to be on hand before they can enter a burning structure, with two going in and two remaining ready outside.  Cleary wanted to comply with the town’s plan to replace a 22-year-old “ladder” fire truck and a 13-year-old ambulance.  Cleary also wanted to modernize systems in the 1974 fire house, where the department’s staff of 14 sleep during their 24-hour shifts.  

And if these were considered “nice to haves,” then there were table-stakes challenges, like hiring during and after COVID.  Or finding job candidates who were certified in both EMT emergency response and firefighting.  Or dealing with the costly wait times of firefighter candidates getting into state-approved certification programs.

To watch Cleary’s discussions with the boards could be painful—particularly with the Finance Committee that oversees, approves, and recommends department budgets at Annual Town Meeting.  For its part, the FinCom was trying to control spending and looked to past spending as the mark, while Cleary was focused on what he said were industry best practices and new regulations and unavoidable mandates.

“Ask any person who has homeowner’s insurance if they’re going to stop investing in it because they haven’t had to use it,” said Cleary.  “You don’t roll the dice on a town’s fire response.  Instead, you prepare carefully for the worst and hope to God it doesn’t happen.”

The boards agreed in concept but insisted that Cleary work within his budget.  They asked if he could use fire apparatus reserve funds for other line items to save money.  When he shared his plan to apply for a federal “S.A.F.E.R.” grant to cover three years of additional staff salaries, the FinCom and Select Board both said no because the grant would obligate the town in the fourth year.  They asked about boosting the volunteer ranks.  They asked if Manchester could lean more on “mutual aid” from other towns.

Cleary dug in.  He said shrinking the department's ability to do its part in mutual aid would make it a one-sided partner and would suffer in the long run.  He dipped into overtime funds to always sustain three firefighters on duty, coming close to the OSHA staff configuration.  He began to spar regularly with both boards.

A New Chapter

In 2022 there was a fire of a contemporary home on Old Essex Road that nearly burned to the ground (again, no one was injured), sparking memories of University Lane.  Manchester’s firefighters rose to the occasion, and Cleary thought his message was getting through.  

In the end the town relented, albeit slowly.  They boosted fire department staff by 33 percent this year, including a hire before April’s Annual Town Meeting.  They recommended the purchase of a new ambulance too.  And this week at a Special Town Meeting residents will weigh whether to purchase a new $1.5 million ladder truck to replace one that isn’t legal in Massachusetts.  (The current one won’t pass state emissions tests.)

But it’s too late.  Cleary’s three-year contract ended on June 30, with neither he nor the town offering to renew.  He and his wife put that Gloucester house on the market.  They’re moving to Maine, where Cleary will start a new job in campus security at Bowdoin College.  He says he’s lost his passion for being a fire chief, at least for now.

“Despite the constant battle with the politics,” he wrote in a Facebook post this week, “we were able to fight for and achieve increased on-duty staffing, a solid apparatus replacement plan, joined an excellent regional dispatch center, and hopefully planted the seed for succession planning and stability with the addition of a deputy chief in the not-too-distant future.”

Cleary is proud that he stayed true to what he calls the “brotherhood and sisterhood” of firefighters, and residents benefit from that.  He was able to improve living conditions at the firehouse, with added lockers, protective gear, accountability systems, office equipment.  He secured several grants for life-saving equipment and another for a specialized pump and monitor nozzle to support the Harbormaster’s office.  And he’s been able to promote two new lieutenants and hire five firefighters who will serve under the new chief, Jake McNeilly, who Cleary says is well known in the region and he trusts will rise to the occasion.

“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished with a great crew of people,” said Cleary.  “Off to the next chapter.”

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