The Fairfax City Fire Department will have a new chief Oct. 22 when Gary A. Mesaris, a 22-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire Department and its second-in-command, takes over.
Mesaris, 44, has been deputy chief in Fairfax County under Fire Chief Warren E. Isman since 1987. "We think he's a very outstanding administrator and highly competent," said Isman. "We worked very well together and I'm going to miss him significantly."
Mesaris said that the many posts he has held since he first joined the department in 1968 have given him "broad experience" that will serve him well as Fairfax City's fire chief.
Mesaris said he will have "the opportunity to inject my own personality and management style" into what he calls "an outstanding organization" without having to leave the Fairfax area, where he has lived all his life.
Fairfax City Manager Edward A. Wyatt said he chose Mesaris from among 85 candidates because "he has an excellent professional background in the fire service."
City officials also see Mesaris's ties with the county as a valuable asset. Mayor John Mason said, "We're absolutely delighted we're getting a home-grown chief who is intimately familiar with the operations of both the county and the city, and we work closely together."
Mesaris is said to be highly regarded in the Fairfax County Fire Department, the largest in Virginia, with a staff of 1,100 and a $45 million annual budget. Until his decision to apply for the Fairfax City job, many saw him as the likely successor to Isman.
Speaking of his decision to leave the Fairfax County Fire Department for Fairfax City's, where the force numbers 99 (including 47 volunteers), Mesaris said he welcomed the "opportunity to move into a less stressful environment, not only in the fire and rescue department but also the city government."
Fairfax City's budget for next year is expected to be tight, and Mesaris said that means "we're going to have to take a hard look at what we're doing . . . and make sure we're getting the best return on the dollar."
Joel Hendelman, president of the Fairfax City Professional Firefighters, which represents the department's 52 career firefighters, said that he was looking forward to working with Mesaris and that he would seek to preserve "what we've got in terms of benefits and equitable pay with surrounding jurisdictions" in the face of any budget cuts.
Although he is widely respected in the department, Mesaris's tenure as deputy chief in Fairfax County has not been without controversy.
In 1986, Mesaris and another fire department official drove a firetruck with Fairfax County markings and equipped with a radar detector from Northern Virginia to Dallas. Fairfax County firetrucks do not ordinarily carry radar detectors, and their use was and is illegal in Virginia.
In 1987, The Washington Post reported that as a favor to Mesaris, three members of the Fairfax County Hazardous Materials Response Unit spent an evening hanging wallpaper in the department's operation division offices while on duty. Such tasks are not usually performed by the department's HazMat unit.
Wyatt declined to say whether he had taken the two incidents into account when considering Mesaris for the job, and said Fairfax County officials "weren't concerned with those problems so I certainly wasn't."
City Council member Rosa Lee Walker said the council "concurred absolutely" with Wyatt's selection of Mesaris, adding, "He's an exceptional young man and I think we're very fortunate to have him come to our city." Questions about the two incidents were not raised when the council was asked to approve Mesaris's appointment, Walker said.
Volunteer Fire Chief Billy Boehm, who will be Mesaris's deputy, said, "I know Mesaris is highly regarded and we're looking forward to working with him."
As fire chief, Mesaris will be paid $68,000 a year. He replaces H.E. Dailey, who retired as the city's fire chief last May. Acting Chief Joseph Bailey held the post during the interim.