By Jonathan Phelps
---- — IPSWICH — Ipswich Fire Chief Rick Smith has decided to retire after 20 years with the department. His last day will be Oct. 20.
Smith, 55, started in Ipswich as a firefighter in 1992 and was promoted to lieutenant before becoming chief in 2011. He started his firefighting career 26 years ago in Lawrence.
”I am very proud of becoming chief,” Smith said. “A lot of people strive for it. It is a difficult position to get.”
Smith said he never imagined himself becoming a firefighter — let alone chief — until seeing the work his father-in-law did as a firefighter in Lawrence.
”I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up dreaming to be a firefighter,” he said. “It was my father-in-law who convinced me into taking the civil service exam.”
Smith stepped in as acting chief after Chief Art Howe stepped down in March 2011. He was hired as the permanent chief in December after a national search by then-Town Manager Bob Markel, who left the become the town manager in Kittery, Maine.
Town Manager Robin Crosbie said she has lined up an interim chief to take over for a six-month period. She would not identify the person she chose yesterday.
”During this period it will give us time to evaluate the department and identify the qualities we need in a successor chief,” she said.
Crosbie described Smith as an important member of her management team who developed a 20-year capital plan for the department, which outlines the future needs of the department.
”He has been a leader for his department in advocating for capital and equipment needs,” she said. “He has expanded training opportunities for firefighters.”
Police Chief Paul Nikas, who also serves as the town’s public safety director, said Smith has a lot of perseverance and dedication to the Fire Department.
“He has got them a lot of new equipment over the past three years,” Nikas said, noting a new fire truck and radio equipment.
“He has served Ipswich well through each rank,” Nikas said. “He started as a firefighter and earned his way up through the ranks. And that is a difficult thing to do.”
Smith has also been a strong advocate for a new combined police and fire station on Elm Street. Selectmen rejected a request to ask Town Meeting for $100,000 to study the proposal forward.
There is a huge need for a new station, Smith said.
“I am sad that I am leaving with that project undone,” he said. “There is a true, true need.”
One of the highlights of his time as chief was getting the department’s new fire engine approved at Town Meeting, he said.
“It was being pushed off, pushed off and in my first year as chief I was able to get it on the Town Meeting warrant,” he said. “It passed almost unanimously. That was overwhelming for me that it was so strongly supported.”
More touching was the opportunity to dedicate the truck to retired fire lieutenant and former Chief Willard “Will” Maker Jr., who died unexpectedly on Father’s Day 2011.
“He was a good friend,” Smith said. “Even after he retired we would meet up for coffee.”
He said he will miss the people he’s worked with over the years the most as he enters into retirement.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends and acquaintances along the way,” he said. “The departments in town work well together.”
He said he is looking forward to spending more time with family and maybe get back into fishing.
”I haven’t been fishing in three years,” he said.
Smith said he was disappointed to be laid off in Lawrence in 1992. But it all worked out in the end, he said.
”I am glad I came here,” Smith said. “If I were to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same way.”
The town will host a retirement reception for Smith Thursday, Oct. 17, from 10 a.m. to noon in the town manager’s meeting at Town Hall, 25 Green St. The public is invited to attend.
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.