Fire Chief Jason Gilliland: Nearly Four Decades Serving Marblehead & Definitely Not Done
Facts and figures about the town’s fire department roll off Marblehead Fire Chief Jason Gilliland’s tongue. His animated discussion of all things firefighting underscores how he has embraced every aspect of his job–one he began nearly 40 years ago.
Chief Gilliland sat down with Marblehead Beacon last week, and it rapidly became clear that while he has a wealth of institutional knowledge, his enthusiasm about educating town residents in various safety arenas tops his list of interests. Under Gilliland’s leadership, firefighters expressing a desire to obtain specialized training have been encouraged and supported, whether it is learning the latest car seat installation techniques, assessing homes for fire or carbon monoxide hazards, or drilling down on fire investigation skills. And the fire department, Gilliland believes, has resources that remain untapped by some in the community. Together with his stable of 42 firefighters, he works every day to assist the town in ways that go far beyond answering emergency calls.
A Long Career with Marblehead Fire: 1980s to Today
Working for the department since the late 1980s, Gilliland lives and breathes details about each firefighter, every fire truck in the department’s fleet of vehicles, and information about all the certifications of everyone in his crew. His continued engagement in and excitement about his job are plain as he speaks. “I’d be bored in retirement,” says the 58-year-old, who had the option to retire several years ago but decided to stay on until retirement becomes mandatory at age 65. “My uncle was a firefighter and that’s how I became interested as a teenager,” he says, and nearly 40 years later, that interest has not waned.
The culmination of Gilliland’s efforts to date includes two awards he received from the Department of Defense in 2019: the Patriot Award, and the Above and Beyond Award,” both of which honor employers who have gone the extra mile for veterans in their employ. And he was nominated by one of his own firefighters: Kraig Hill.
“It’s a combination of everything,” says Gilliland about his favorite components of the job. “I enjoy people, I like the department heads, [and] the extra stuff I do.” He sits on the town’s retirement board and that of a credit union, and chairs the Northeast Homeland Security Regional Advisory Council (NERAC), as well as coordinating a fire investigation program for the Department of Fire Services–something he’s done the past 15 years. This is all in addition to his work for the firefighters union, where he served as president for approximately 15 years.
Gilliland’s passion for the job began before he had even started in the role. Just out of Marblehead High School, he signed up to be on the “call force,” which meant he received a stipend for being on call to augment the existing full-time firefighters. He was invited to become a full-fledged fireman the year after he graduated. In time he would obtain an Associate’s Degree in Fire Sciences from North Shore Community College, and then begin working toward a Bachelor’s Degree at Salem State. Though he took a decades-long hiatus from his studies while he and his wife were raising children, he is now set to graduate this June. “I don’t like leaving things undone,” he says.
A Family Affair
The son of a chemist who developed plastics, Gilliland moved around a lot as a youngster. After stints in Indiana and Wisconsin, the family landed in Marblehead. Though Gilliland stayed after graduation to take a job with the Marblehead Fire Department and has never left, his parents headed back to upstate New York–the place they had always considered home. To this day, the family maintains a farm near Cooperstown.
Gilliland’s passion for life as a firefighter has transferred to his son Liam, now a lieutenant in the department. And they are not the only ones in the family to feel the pull toward public service. Gilliland’s wife Amy is the dispatch supervisor with the Marblehead Police Department, and her sister, Theresa Collins, also works as a dispatcher and EMT.
Captain Joe Thibodeau and his brother, Eric Thibodeau, are among the others for whom the fire department is a family calling, as are William Boardway–just appointed last year–and his father, Jack, who has been with the department for nearly 25 years.
“You’ve got that with fire and police,” says Gilliland. “At the police department you have Sean, Sean, and Charlie,” he adds, referring to the Sweeney brothers and their father.
Modernizing Marblehead Fire
Gilliland’s rise to the top job with Marblehead Fire seemed inevitable when in 2009 he achieved the department’s top score on the Massachusetts Fire Chief exam. There was, however, a lot that came before his appointment to the role, including a decorated career that included working his way up to lieutenant and captain rankings, with outstanding performance on promotion exams along the way. “I’ve had a very fortunate career as far as timing and things,” he says modestly, but he was also the first firefighter in Marblehead to be certified as an EMT. Now it is standard, with each of the 42 members of the department certified as EMTs. “We also have one full paramedic–Lieutenant Charles Cerrutti–who is also the Town’s Emergency Management Coordinator.
When Gilliland became chief thirteen years ago, he pushed for the fire trucks to become Class 5 ambulances. Essentially this means that the trucks are equipped like an ambulance and have the same capabilities in terms of supplies and medical equipment, but may not (unless used as emergency backup) transport patients. Today both Engine 1 and Engine 2 are rated as Class 5 ambulances. “We can respond to every single medical call,” he says. “All trucks have Narcan for overdoses, and defibrillators and suction units on them, [as well as] a Lucas device that delivers efficient mechanical CPR.” Marblehead Fire’s “save rate” has surpassed its average from before it had the ability to do mechanical compressions. Outside of transporting patients to hospitals–which Cataldo Ambulance does–Marblehead Fire is equipped to handle all the town’s 911 medical calls.
January 1, 2023 will mark 39 years of Gilliland serving with the Marblehead Fire Department. Given his enormous commitment to the role and plans to hold out until age 65 to retire, the next seven years promise to be awash in positive change and growth under his leadership. Stay tuned for our second installment–tomorrow–on how Chief Gilliland continues to train, update, and professionalize the department.