GARDINER — Al Nelson retired from the Augusta Fire Department as a battalion chief in 2009 after 25 years with the department. After working as a nurse for a few years, Nelson is back with a fire department, but this time as chief.

“I like nursing. I love the fire service. There’s just a difference there,” Nelson said during an interview Thursday in his new office at Gardiner City Hall.

Nelson, 52, was born in Gardiner and said he’s lived in the city or Pittston on the other side of the river his entire life. For the last three years, Nelson, who lives in Gardiner with his wife, Kate Nelson, has served as an emergency department nurse at the VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus. The job in Gardiner was a chance for him to return home and return to the field he loves. Nelson’s first day was Tuesday.

“I’m glad to be here. It’s exciting for me to kind of get back into something I’m passionate about,” he said.

Nelson is replacing another former battalion chief for Augusta, Dan Guimond, who served as Gardiner’s interim chief after Mike Minkowsky left at the end of March for other career opportunities. The city had delayed hiring a permanent fire chief while it hired a consultant to look at reasons for lower-than-expected revenues from its ambulance service, which largely funds the fire department.

The consultant’s report presented at a City Council meeting in April said the city’s revenue projections for its ambulance service had been overly optimistic for several years because of poor billing practices and collection practices that aren’t aggressive enough.


Part of Nelson’s first duties will be evaluating changes the city implemented in response to the report to see if revenues have improved, said City Manager Scott Morelli.

“Obviously that’s going to play a big role in next year’s budget,” Morelli said.

He said the city received about 40 applicants for the chief position and narrowed it down to five for interviews. The search committee members planned to narrow it down further to two or three for a second interview, but Nelson impressed them enough that he was offered the job after the first interview, Morelli said.

Morelli said Nelson, besides being a local resident, impressed the committee because he previously worked for a fire department in the area, has experience as a battalion chief and is a licensed paramedic.

Morelli said Nelson has another task he must tackle: He has to get to know the other seven communities — Chelsea, Dresden, Farmingdale, Litchfield, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner — that are part of the city’s ambulance service. He said a longer term goal for Nelson and the department is to look at if it’s possible or realistic to eventually move to a regional fire service.

There are several other fire departments in a small radius around Gardiner, but it’s one of the few full-time departments in the region. Most of the others are volunteer departments.


Nelson said his first goal is work on the relationships between Gardiner and the other departments.

He said he thinks some kind of regional fire service model is possible at some point in the future, but that would require a lot of talking and planning among the departments. Mid-Atlantic states such as Maryland and Virginia have embraced regional departments as a way to save money without sacrificing service, he said.

“If you look at your surrounding departments here — your West Gardiner, Farmingdale, Randolph, Pittston — these are all well-established, community fire departments, and people that belong to those departments have a lot of ownership and pride in their departments. When you start talking regionalization, there’s loss,” Nelson said.

“You’ve got to consider that personal side of it,” he added. “It can’t only be punching numbers, so there has to be a lot of talk and negotiation.”

Nelson said it’s important to build trust among the communities and the fire departments first. He plans to start by finding ways to make the different departments’ operations more consistent, possibly by doing shared training.

Another key issue Nelson plans to look at immediately is the mutual aid agreements with other communities. He said he would like to establish automatic response agreements with Augusta and Togus, two other full-time departments in the area.


“Eventually — and eventually may be five, ten years, I don’t know — eventually the economics is going to force it to happen,” Nelson said of regionalization. “If it gets forced, nobody’s going to be happy. Not one person involved is going to be happy.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

Twitter: @paul_koenig

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