CUMBERLAND — When Chief Donald James Dunn retires at the end of June as head of the Cumberland Fire Department, it will bring to a close a 44-year career that began when he was hired by the late Chief Russell Livengood.
“My brother Richard saw an ad that the Cumberland Fire Department was taking applications and suggested that I apply,” said the former Mount Savage High School standout basketball and soccer star, who was working out of town back then with a state survey crew.
Dunn soon landed an interview as one of the top 10 candidates seeking to be hired by the city.
“When we finished the interview, Chief Livengood told me I needed to get a haircut before I reported for duty. The funny thing is I had just gotten a haircut before my interview,” laughed Dunn, who began his career on March 23, 1977.
Dunn, 70, recalled that he was one of six other firefighters who were hired that year and at the same time the department launched its ambulance service.
“The seven of us began working daylight and taking the emergency medical technician class at Station 3 on Frederick Street where Lt. Jim Dawson was the instructor,” said Dunn.
Ten years into his career, Dunn was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He achieved the rank of captain and two years after that was appointed deputy chief. Dunn was appointed chief in March 2011 after serving nine months as interim chief upon the retirement of Chief William Herbaugh.
Looking back, Dunn has not forgotten the positive influence of his fellow firefighters.
“I was deputy chief under Chief Livengood for seven years and he was a definite influence on me. Also, Bobby Long talked me into taking the first promotional test.
“Lt. Dave Barnes and Deputy Chief Jim Koontz always tried to be fair with the employees,” Dunn said.
The chief said the last year has been difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there have been other challenging times.
“In my first few years when I became chief, there was a budget crunch when the city had a hard time making payroll. And the department was reduced in manpower from 65 to the current level of 51 firefighters,” he said, noting that the positions were eliminated through attrition.
The son of the late Richard H. and Dorothy Dunn acknowledged the unwavering support he enjoyed in executing his responsibilities as chief.
“I could not have done the fire chief’s job without Julie Davis as the department’s administrative officer and Shannon Adams, the city fire marshal,” he said. “I’ve always heard that if you surround yourself with good people it makes your job easier, and I’ve found that to be true.
“I feel I have the best officers that the department has ever had, and it is not only the officers. The department has the most qualified and dedicated people in the department’s history,” Dunn said.
With Adams now serving as interim chief by appointment of now-retired City Administrator Jeff Rhodes, Dunn said the department will have to address the “challenge of aging equipment.”
Immediate help will arrive with the delivery of a new Sutphen aerial truck that will be added to the fleet in a few months — it replaces a worn-out 1992 Sutphen aerial truck that has a long history of needing emergency repairs in recent years.
“We hope to get a new ambulance in the next budget, and we have to consider replacing some of our fire engines before too long,” said Dunn, who cited another ongoing challenge that is not unique to the city fire department.
“We are having trouble getting applicants. Competition for employees has greatly increased with Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties now all having paid emergency medical services providers,” Dunn said.
A hiring advantage of city fire department, Dunn said, is its promotional system that allows firefighters to drive a fire apparatus or become promoted to fire officer after being assigned to the ambulance in the early years of their career. The department typically averages 18-20 calls per day.
Camaraderie is another attraction for applicants. “I think it is an advantage working with a group of 11 as opposed to one or two in a station,” Dunn said.
“When I started, I thought I would work with the CFD for a couple years and maybe find something else. But the camaraderie with the people on the job made me stay. I quickly found a lot of good friends,” he said.
Dunn also said the work schedule is a hiring plus.
“I got to spend a lot of time with my kids when they were young. My wife Linda and I had four young children between 1993 and 2000 — Dylan, Evan, Meredith and Ryan.
“Linda had to spend many nights alone with the kids and then I would take care of them when she went to work. There were many days that I was glad that she finally got home to help me out. And sometimes I was glad to go to work to get some peace and quiet,” said Dunn.
Under the present work schedule, city firefighters work one day and then have two days off. The arrangement provides a routine of being off five days in a row at least once a month.
Dunn said his retirement plans include continuing to instruct a disaster preparedness class at Allegany College of Maryland.
“I will continue coaching soccer at Bishop Walsh for now and I may start playing a little golf again,” he said.