The members of Jefferson Fire and Rescue elected Walter Morris Jefferson Fire Chief on April 15. Unlike many newly elected chiefs, Morris, 52, and a 35-year veteran firefighter, knows exactly what it’s going to take to be chief, and he isn’t worried at all.
“The key to success,” Morris said from behind his desk at the Jefferson Fire Station on May 3, “is understanding that the days of the chief trying to do everything himself are gone.”
Morris said he has already started enlisting other firefighters to handle some duties around the station and is thrilled with the response he’s had.
“When I’ve asked people if they would help, they’ve jumped at the opportunity,” he said. “When you have people like that around you, the privilege of serving as fire chief is exactly that – a privilege.”
He knows that privilege, and all the responsibilities that come with it, well. Morris served as chief of the fire department in Monsey, NY, a suburb about 30 miles outside New York City, in 1996, ’97 and ’98. The chief in Monsey serves one-year terms, and there is a three-term limit.
“Wally is just so brilliant and so well trained,” said Jefferson Firefighter Don Hastings. Hastings is a former fire chief of the Spring Valley, NY, Fire Department. “He teaches the entire country – chiefs from all over the US – how to fight fires. It’s our good fortune to have him, and he’s going to be a real asset to Lincoln County and to Jefferson.”
Morris’s background and education are extensive. He joined the Monsey Fire Department when he turned 18 and then earned three degrees, including a master’s degree in fire protection management.
After a stint as a fire risk assessor for an insurance company in Manhattan, he took a job as an instructor at the Rockland County, NY, fire-training facility. The move meant a serious decrease in pay, but Morris described it as much more rewarding.
“It’s much more immediate,” he said. “Taking in people with no experience and helping them develop into good, safe, effective firefighters.”
He went on to serve as Fire Instruction Supervisor for Rockland County for 16 years, ending when he moved to Jefferson in 2006.
That training center serves 26 fire departments, and is one of the premier training facilities on the east coast, Hastings said. Hastings was the Fire Instruction Supervisor there when Morris started as an instructor.
Morris hopes to bring his experience as a trainer to the role of chief in Jefferson, and said an important part of being chief is to be a mentor to the members of his company.
In only a few weeks on the job, he’s already started to accomplish that goal. Morris has done away with Officers’ Meetings, and instead calls them Operations Meetings, and invites every firefighter to attend.
There were 20 people at their last meeting. “We’ve never had that many before,” Hastings said.
“That’s what the members want. They want to be involved,” Hastings said. “It makes you feel good when everyone’s involved. It’s a brotherhood and a sisterhood and that’s how it should be.”
Morris’s father was a lifetime firefighter and a chief of the Monsey Fire Department, and Morris said he always wanted to follow in those footsteps.
“He set a good example of how to give back to the community and to be a part of the community,” Morris said.
As a boy, Morris tagged along with his father to fires. He was too young help fight them, so he became the unofficial department photographer. “I just wanted to be there; to ride in the truck and to be around the guys that were fighting fires,” he said.
It was a given that he would join the department when he turned 18, and he did. He’s never looked back.
“He’s the nicest guy you ever want to meet, but I don’t think he has any hobbies,” Hastings said. “He’s all fire, and all his energies are towards firefighting.”
Hastings has seen Morris’s single-minded devotion to fighting fires first hand. When Morris graduated high school, and right after he joined the Monsey department, Hastings was with him and his father at a meeting of the Rockland County Fire Chiefs.
“I told his father, ‘I hope you’re not bent on having grandkids, because I don’t think Wally will ever get married – unless he marries a fire truck,'” Hastings said.
When asked what he does besides fight fires, Morris replied with a momentary blank stare. Eventually, he said he likes to fish on Clary Lake, where he owns a cabin and has a rowboat. “Hopefully this year I’ll be able to find time to get the boat on the water,” he said.
He’s a proud father and likes to watch his son, Wally Junior, 13, play baseball and basketball. His daughter, Emily, 19, graduated May 5 from Central Maine Community College.
Both his children are fulfilling the family tradition of giving back, he said. His daughter was president of Women in Technology and secretary of the Student Council at CMCC. His son is already helping around the fire station.
“I plan to spend some quality family time this summer,” Morris said.
He expects he’ll have extra time this summer because of the lighter workload he’s carrying. Right now, he’s only serving as chief of a fire department and as the training program manager for half the state for Maine Fire Training and Education.
Until April 12, three days before he was elected fire chief, he was also the Director of Maine Fire Training and Education. He took on that role in 2008 to fill in while they found a permanent director. It was only supposed to be a three-month stint, but he stayed on for a year and a half.
Fortunately, right before the Jefferson fire department’s elections, they found a permanent Director. “The timing couldn’t have been more perfect,” he said. “It’s why I was able to step up and take over as chief.”
Even when he’s busy, Morris never questions whether he’d rather be doing anything else.
“Firefighting has always given me goals and focus,” he said. “I’m fortunate that I always knew what I wanted to do. I’m very fortunate that I never wake up in the morning and dread going to work.”
The first life he saved was during one of his first years as a firefighter. He responded to a house fire and the parents said they had five children trapped inside. As it turned out, in the confusion they had forgotten that they had just had a sixth child.
Morris found their daughter on the floor just outside the kitchen, where the fire had started. He carried her out, and she survived.
That was the first of two valor awards that Morris has received for his work as a firefighter. The second came after he saved a topless dancer from her burning apartment.
“This one’s definitely the strangest hero story I have,” Morris said.
The apartment caught fire around 1 a.m. while the woman was waiting for her boyfriend to come home. She started boiling water to make pasta and fell asleep on the couch.
When rescue crews arrived, they couldn’t get in through the front door, because the flames were too heavy. The only other entrance was around back via a balcony.
Morris entered through the sliding door on the balcony and found the woman, passed out from the smoke, in the doorway between the bedroom and living room. He carried her to safety and after surgery for the burns on her back she survived.
Several months later, Morris found out he was named in a lawsuit the woman was filing.
“She named everyone she could think of – the building owner, the town, the firefighters – it was entirely frivolous,” Morris said.
Before the suit could go to court, the woman started having an affair with a wealthy, and married, New York businessman.
When she tried to break it off, he got mad.
She enlisted another man she had just started dating, and killed the businessman.
“The lawsuit got dropped when she went to jail for murder,” Morris said.
Although he’s seen his share of action fighting fires in New York and in Jefferson for the last four years, those stories are not the most important part of being a firefighter.
“When Mrs. Smith calls 911, she’s having the worst day of her life,” Morris said. “Whether her house is on fire, or her cat’s in a tree, or her husband had a heart attack, she’s having the worst day of her life. We’re coming to do what we can to help her out. You need people to give that service; firefighting is a service, and it’s all people.”