WESTERLY — At just 33 years old, Christopher DeGrave is younger than most would have expected the next Dunn’s Corners Fire District chief would be.
With a resume that includes a decade-and-a-half as a volunteer firefighter, administrative experience on both a state and local level, and a knack for working with the public, it’s no surprise the North Smithfield native got the nod — and now the former member of the Governor's Commission on Disabilities is looking to making greater transparency, public participation and volunteer recruitment and retention his primary goals moving forward.
“What we do here, our jobs, it’s all for the public,” he said in an interview in his office last week. “It isn’t about me. It’s about the strong volunteers we already have and the community we serve. I may be the conductor of the band, but without the band playing behind me, I have nobody.”
DeGrave, a former Rhode Island ADA inspector and deputy chief with the South Kingstown Volunteer Fire Department, has officially taken the helm at Dunn’s Corners and said he is ready to take on the challenge of maintaining the high quality of service already in place while simultaneously enhancing public interaction and encouraging community involvement in both department operations and activities.
A Richmond resident who is in the process of moving to the Westerly/Charlestown area with his wife, Jamie, and the couple’s 18-month-old daughter, Cameron, DeGrave has already made his presence felt at the department since first being named the next chief in early February.
Matt Thomsen, moderator of the Dunn’s Corners Fire District, said following the announcement that it was DeGrave’s vast experience as a state leader, his understanding of volunteer fire services and his commitment to volunteer recruitment and retention that set him apart.
In fact, the sheer number of accomplishments at just 33 was too much for members of the district’s operating and search committees to ignore, ultimately leading him to be the unanimous selection following a lengthy, two-part search process that took nearly nine months to complete.
“As a volunteer department, we believe he has the experience to appeal to younger volunteers and help enhance recruitment efforts in the district. We’re excited,” Thomsen said.
On his first official day, he delivered a speech to his staff, the vast majority of which are unpaid volunteers, and encouraged them to take pride in their role. He reminded them that their work, not his, is what makes the difference for those in town.
“I pledge my commitment to you,” he said. “I will never forget that it is you not me that delivers the services that are provided to our community. In concert with my leadership team, we will provide you the training, knowledge, equipment and resources to support your very best work.”
It was a natural first move for the new chief, who has spent the last four years working as the training officer and deputy chief for South Kingstown and knows what it’s like to be a volunteer. After all, he said, it wasn’t all that long ago that the strong work of a group of students ultimately led him to find a career in fire services.
A 2006 graduate of the University of Rhode Island, DeGrave still recalls the moment he decided to be a firefighter. It was late at night while living in the dorms when the fire alarm went off and everyone was forced to evacuate. He remembers watching in awe as two fire trucks filled with seven college-aged students pulled up and proceeded to address the issue.
“Until that point, it was like I hadn’t realized that was even an opportunity,” said DeGrave. “I mean, I think it all starts as a kid when you see the fire trucks in a parade, but it was that moment that it was something I wanted to do.”
Coming from a family of public servants — his father, Dennis DeGrave, spent 25 years as a reserve with the Rhode Island National Guard, while his grandfathers, Ernest DeGrave and Omer Patrick Guertin, served in the Air Force and Navy — he had always looked for a chance to give back. He found his calling with fire services.
DeGrave officially joined the South Kingstown Fire Department in 2005 and would work his way through the ranks before being named the deputy chief in 2013.
While volunteering, DeGrave worked for Providence Emergency Management from 2006 through 2008 before serving as the state of Rhode Island’s ADA inspector and the assistant state ADA coordinator.
Despite having a job many would consider worthy of staying with, DeGrave said he was excited to take on the opportunity to be a chief. He said it brings him back to what he loves to do: managing people, helping others find their passions, serving the community and providing the best fire services possible.
“My goals and future vision include new recruitment strategies, incentive programs, training regimens as well as attainable goals and expectations from the newest firefighter to my position,” he said. “We will work to streamline operations, policies and procedures to encourage advancement and growth for all volunteers, and the department as a whole.”