By Scooter MacMillan, Editor
The name doesn’t say it all. But it says a lot about the new chief of the Charlotte Fire and Rescue Department — Justin Bliss.
Bliss is extremely happy with his new job, but he’s not just in bliss. He also has a lot of humility about heading the department. The need to be humble but confident was a common theme in a conversation with him.
Bliss was named to the post by a unanimous vote of the department’s board on June 14, but he doesn’t officially start until July 18.
He is replacing the sometimes-controversial Dick St. George, who has been chief of the department for seven years.
Bliss said he didn’t know what the controversy was about and is confident it can be worked out. He sees St. George as a fantastic resource.
“I need him here to try and get as much knowledge from him as I can. He knows the town. He knows the equipment. Honestly, he’s a really good firefighter, too. I’d love to keep him on in any capacity,” Bliss said.
Bliss is from Liverpool, N.Y., about six miles north of Syracuse. Although his father wasn’t a firefighter, his grandfather was a firefighter and two of his uncles were fire chiefs.
In fact, it was going with one of his uncles to a car-fire call when he was 8 years-old that set him on the path that eventually led to the Charlotte Fire and Rescue Department.
“That’s where I caught the bug,” Bliss said. “Gosh, I had never seen so much fire in my life.”
The car was a total loss but no one was hurt. A future firefighter was born.
When he was 16, he joined the fire department and he’s been involved in fire and rescue ever since, except for about a year after graduating from Champlain College in 2005, while he worked in IT management, until he realized that desk work just isn’t for him.
In 2008, Bliss was hired by the South Burlington Fire Department where he worked for eight years.
In 2016, Bliss and his wife Dani moved to Virginia. Dani Bliss, an anesthesiologist in the Navy, was transferred to the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth.
Quitting a job he loved in South Burlington seemed tragic at first, but it turned into a blessing. He went to work for the fire service in Suffolk, Va. His three years there were great for him professionally — and personally. His wife gave birth to Wyatt, who just turned 5, and Naomi, who just turned 3.
One of the things he feels might have set him apart from other applicants for the Charlotte chief of the department was his three years in Virginia. He was able to learn from some very strong leaders. And he was able to learn from some very weak leaders.
He and his family moved back to Vermont in July 2020. Dani Bliss had gotten a job working in anesthesiology at the University of Vermont Medical Center, but it being the height of COVID lockdown, they couldn’t even enter the state to look at the home they were buying in Hinesburg.
They bought a home they’d only seen in pictures after having three homes they were interested in bought out from underneath them, by buyers who offered cash.
Bliss thinks they were able to buy the new home because the house needed some work. In fact, it needed lots of work. He jokes that their Wi-Fi password is money pit.
But from the dreamy look he gets when he talks about the property, it’s clear he thinks the hassle and expense have been worth it. They live on Sunset Lake and can just walk out the door and climb into a kayak.
For the past two years, he’s been working part-time jobs including teaching as a state fire instructor, a paramedic with the Colchester Rescue Squad and as a lieutenant with the Hinesburg Fire Department.
Because his schedule was flexible, he was able to be the primary caregiver for their two children.
Becoming chief of the department in Charlotte is going “to be challenging,” Bliss said. “I’m not going to lie.”
But the hiring committee has agreed to be flexible with him as long as he’s getting the job done. And Dani Bliss may have to take sick days which she hasn’t had to do.
He expects the biggest challenge of his new job will be recruitment and retention of rescuers.
“That’s not just a Charlotte thing. That’s a nationwide thing. There are constant staffing issues everywhere,” Bliss said.
One of his ideas to work on this issue is working with other departments in the region, trying to tie the regional partners closer together. Towards that end, he would like to do joint trainings with other departments and increase radio operations with them.
“It’s the nature of the fire service that we make do with what we have, but we can always use more people,” he said.
He said the Hinesburg department recently had an open house and thinks that’s something Charlotte might want to try.
“If we even get one recruit, it’s worth it,” Bliss said.
Another idea he has for finding recruits is increasing ties with Champlain Valley Union High. This idea comes right out of his wheelhouse; every person who was a cadet with him when he joined in high school went on to become a full-time firefighter.
So, he hopes to have a booth at the high school’s career days.
He thinks that the members of Charlotte Fire and Rescue are very well trained but is interested in seeing if there are ways to get even more training. Bliss said he knows it will cost some money, but he’d like to look into the feasibility of bringing in trainers from out of state, to be on top of whatever is on the cutting edge of rescue training.
“I’d really like to see us become an area leader for training,” he said.
Bliss returns to the theme of humility and his sense that he has a touch of imposter syndrome — which he believes can be a strength: “I think humility is a very important characteristic of any leader and I do feel that I’m a very humble person.”
Because of this he feels he doesn’t get married to a specific idea and is able to listen to others who may have a better idea.
His fondest memories in fire and rescue are of helping — the expression of hurting people when he’s been able to give them medication that alleviated their pain, stabilizing a woman with a heart blockage, the relief of people in scary situations when he and other rescuers showed up.
The worst memories are of calls that involve children. Now that he’s a father those calls hit harder and closer to home.
Bliss said, “I just really like helping people.” It could be the fire and rescue credo.
His funniest memory of fire and rescue didn’t happen to him.
“A friend of mine was responding to a car accident, and the windshield was red,” Bliss said.
So, his colleague was expecting things to be really bad. And when he got the car door open, there was even more red. But the victim had just left the pizza shop and the pie did a face-plant on the windshield. Tomato sauce was everywhere.
The pizza could not be resuscitated.