PITTSTON — On Saturday, Jason Farris will step down as Pittston’s fire chief, and Joshua Johnson will take over the department’s top spot.

Johnson, 33, joined the Pittston Fire Department in 2003, only a couple of months before Farris became chief.

In that time, Johnson said he’s learned many things from Farris that he hopes to continue in his own tenure.

“Specifically,” Johnson said, “his handling of personnel is second to none and has been even when he was young. He’s the chief I knew for the last 15 years. Just the way he handled himself and manages people, that’s something he has passed on.”

Johnson and Farris sat down at the East Pittston Village Fire Station earlier this week to talk about the transition from chief to chief.

Farris, 45, earned a standing ovation from town residents for his service after he announced at Pittston’s Town Meeting that he planned to step down at the end of August. While he will remain a volunteer with the department, he said he wanted to spend time on other things.

During his tenure, Farris has secured grants to pay for fire trucks, took part in a town-wide project to distribute and install smoke detectors and oversaw the construction of the East Pittston Fire Station.

What has been important, according to Farris, is developing a capable and trained volunteer fire department, which was not easy when he first started.

“If there’s anything that I hope that I portray, it’s that in the fire service I feel life and property is No. 1. It saddens and frustrates me that that is not always the case,” said Farris, who is a battalion chief at the Augusta Fire Department. “If you think you are not doing what you can to protect the life and property of the fire department, and the life and property of the people you protect, you shouldn’t be chief.”

What he sees in Johnson, Farris said, is the way he interacts with the firefighters.

“He doesn’t tell, he asks,” he said. “He’s not really asking, but he is.

“He doesn’t have to tell because the guys will do what he asks,” added Farris. “If you make a mistake, he’s good about correcting it in a professional manner.”

Johnson, who is a lieutenant with the Gardiner Fire Department, said that aside from the professional fire departments in the region, Pittston’s volunteer department is among the youngest in the area.

Farris said that’s due to the department’s junior firefighter program that trains 16- and 17-year-olds on the equipment and procedures of the department so that when they are 18, they are equipped to join as volunteers.

But it’s not clear that the program can overcome the shift in Maine’s population — an average age that is increasing and rural areas are generally losing residents.

“Attracting firefighters is going to be my biggest challenge as chief,” Johnson said. “It is the biggest challenge for any chief, and it stands true for more than just the volunteer service.”

Even the full-time departments are struggling to fill vacancies, he said, when pay is as high as it’s ever been, in both the professional and volunteer fire services.

That makes the department’s outreach and recruitment efforts more important, including reaching out to schools to grab interest early and extending invitations to apply.

A hiring committee, comprised of Farris, Selectman Greg Lumbert, Pittston’s Personnel Committee Chairperson James Lotheridge and a representative of the Maine Fire Service Institute, selected Johnson for the job.

“The town made a very good choice,” Lumbert said. “Josh is very well-qualified and will do a good job for the town. Jason is a very squared-away kind of guy. He was a good chief, and Josh will do the same.”

Johnson said when Farris first announced to the department that he was leaving, he considered not applying for the job.

“My biggest concern was that even if I put my best foot forward and the system fails because people don’t volunteer or whatever — it’s a substantial set of shoes to fill,” he said.

“It’s not a competition,” Farris said. “He shouldn’t look to outdo me. He should do his own thing.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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