WATERTOWN — In 2003, Deputy Fire Chief Russell J. Randall led a crew of firefighters who prevented a large fire at the old North Country Battery Sales building from spreading to neighboring structures.
At the height of the Sept. 17 blaze, they stood their ground and kept the State Street fire in check.
While congratulating his friend on his retirement on Tuesday morning, Chief Dale C. Herman remembered how the deputy chief was awarded “Outstanding Firefighter of the Year” in 2004 for his efforts during the Battery Sales fire so many years before.
To this day, Deputy Chief Randall continues to play down his role in fighting that blaze and being named firefighter of the year.
“It could have been any of 40 guys who were out there,” he said during a ceremony on Tuesday morning at the Massey Street fire station to commemorate his career.
The Battery Sales blaze was one of many that he fought during his nearly 30-year career with the fire department.
For the past nine years, he’s served as deputy chief, appointed by his boss and friend, Chief Herman.
The fire chief said his friend “was a good fit,” adding that Deputy Chief Randall brought strengths to the department to offset weaknesses in computer skills and mechanical aptitude that he saw in himself.
The two top fire department officials were at the helm while the firefighters’ union has gone through a bitter contract dispute with the city since 2014.
Chief Herman often felt that the deputy chief was the only person in the department that he could turn to as a friend.
Neither were a part of the department’s rank-and-file, so they relied on each other, the fire chief said.
Former City Manager Sharon A. Addison criticized their handling of the union squabble for not taking the city’s side in the contract dispute.
“You know, I’ve always been outspoken,” Deputy Chief Randall said in defending the fire department.
In recent years, the deputy chief often attended City Council meetings, sitting near the back of the third-floor council chambers to watch the decisions elected officials made in regards to the fire department.
Sometimes, he let them know where he stood on issues. And he’ll continue to attend council meetings, he said.
In 2017, the city manager did not give Chief Herman and the deputy chief 2 percent salary increases in the city budget — the only two on the management team who were not given raises.
A week later, Chief Randall also was taken to task at a council meeting when he unsuccessfully lobbied for the city to apply for a federal grant that would help the city pay for hiring six firefighters.
He was told to be careful what he had to say since he was there in an official capacity and would not be protected for free speech, so he could face disciplinary charges after contradicting the city’s stance on the fire department.
But Chief Randall expressed disappointment that he was never able to communicate what it takes to be a firefighter and how they provide fire protection to the community.
“I think there was an inability to make the points to elected officials in a manner that they understood that fire protection isn’t about dollars and cents,” he said.
It was because of that “ineffectiveness” that he thought it was time to move on and retire. His decision also is not based on a recommendation by the city charter commission to eliminate the $89,486-a-year job.
It also recommends that the fire chief works at the discretion of the city manager.
The changes in the charter commission will go before the voters in November.
City Manager Rick Finn said Tuesday that he decided not to fill the deputy chief position at this time, so he can assess the fire department’s needs with a court decision that requires 15 firefighters on duty at all times.
“I’m not abolishing the position,” he said. “I’m just not filling it at this time.”
Council members were told of his decision. Chief Herman said the loss of the position and his friend’s retirement leaves “a void” in the department.
With his last day on Thursday, Deputy Chief Randall says he has no idea how many fires he’s fought. There are some memorable ones, including the blaze that destroyed a five-story brick-frame structure at 35 Public Square known as the annex to the former J.R. Store in November 1997. Some were fatal fires.
“If there was a fire and I was in town, I was there,” he said.
Except for the heart-wrenching fire last February that took the lives of four sisters, ranging in age from 4 to 8, and their father.
It struck too close to home. His niece, Melissa Davey, was the girls’ mother.
“It was the second time in my 29-career that I didn’t answer a call because I was sick,” he said.
At the end of his retirement ceremony, he made sure to leave a message about fire prevention to the community.
Make sure smoke detectors work. Families must have a plan to get out of their homes in case of a fire. And then have a place to meet to make sure they all get out.
A Look Back
March 25, 1990 — Became a city firefighter as a member of the first graduating class of the Fire Academy in Montour Falls
July 31, 2002 — Promoted to the captain
March 21, 2010 — Appointed deputy chief
Sept. 12, 2019 — Retires after more than 29 years