New Fire Chief Credits Team’s Firm Foundation for Successful Transition

Having a major staff shake up at the fire department and quickly promoting the deputy to fire chief with a short transition time might cause a bit of angst for the department and community. However, that’s not what happened when the Lowell Area Fire Department was unexpectedly without a chief.

Cory Velzen was sworn in as the new Lowell Fire Chief on March 14. He’s no stranger to the community after having lived in Lowell for 18 years, with 15 of those years as a firefighter with the department.

Velzen says the department has not felt any major repercussions internally or from the community due to the sudden departure of his predecessor. Former Fire Chief Shannon Witherell resigned in December 2023 after being charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor, none of which involved the fire department.

“The team’s been great. The community has been good to work with and understanding,” according to Velzen.

Velzen is also not a stranger to firefighting in general as numerous members of his family are also either current or former firefighters, mostly in the city of Wyoming. It’s a vocation to which he says his family members are drawn.

“We enjoy it,” he says. “It’s a passion we’ve found. It’s something that we feel a calling towards.”

After growing up in Wyoming and spending summers on Murray Lake in Lowell, Velzen and his wife decided to move to Lowell as it has a comfortable city/country balance.

He moved up the ranks of the department, first becoming a lieutenant and then serving as the deputy chief for the last two years. Velzen says his transition is going well but is not without challenges that he and his department have been working to overcome.

“The big part that makes it a lot easier — I’m not going to say absolutely smooth but easier to deal with and work through — is having a team and a dynamic that makes it work,” he shares.

Velzen says the community has had an increase in incidents requiring the fire department this last year. This has been the main challenge the department is currently facing. He says his tight-knit team of 32 on-call firefighters and three staff members fills in roles when needed.

“It does say a lot to the resolve of the team, the people who are here, that in the absence of one or the other, there are people who are willing to step up and fill those voids,” Velzen says. “It doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean it’s normal, but (due to) training and discussions, meetings, those all allow the department to move forward.”

Most members of the Lowell Area Fire Department also work other full-time jobs. Before Velzen was promoted to fire chief, he was a maintenance manager and master electrician at a manufacturing company for the past 11 years. Now that he is the chief, fire fighting is his full time job. He says not having to work two jobs is making his life less stressful.

Velzen says working in the busy community of Lowell is a very positive experience. The number of events each week and the involvement level of residents makes it a pleasant place to serve and live.

“It is truly a community that cares about each other. That’s most evident with all the activities that happen throughout town. There’s always a busyness element that happens with the community and the feel of something going on… That’s just fantastic.”

He also says the structure of the Lowell department is unique in that the City of Lowell, Lowell Charter Township, and Vergennes Township are combined as one entity in the Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority.

“We have a very unique model here. I believe, in my opinion, that it’s been successful, not without trials and tribulations, but overall there are good structures to build from,” he says.

Community growth and development has caused the department incident volume to increase, which naturally puts a strain on the department. Velzen says he is evaluating the department’s needs and how it moves forward.

“Is our model correct? Is it going to stay that way moving forward? At this point we say yes, it works right now,” Velzen says. “Five years? Ten years? Maybe not. Certain circumstances might change, but those are definitely challenges that are going to be difficult for us as a department to work through.”

Examining the number of paid on-call workers is just one of the department’s needs as more calls from the community means longer hours the staff needs to be available – not an easy problem to solve with most of the staff already working another job. Making sure there is sufficient staff to respond to the needs of the community, especially emergencies, is of utmost importance.

“As the community grows, so does the number of calls we have,” according to Velzen. “It gets exhausting for the paid on-call who have the rest of their lives to deal with, and they can’t just be at the fire station all night. That’s non-sustainable in a long-term type role.”

Velzen is optimistic that his team will continue to get their jobs done and be a positive force in the community.

“It’s not easy, but if you establish a good, firm foundation on knowing your roles and your place, the team can work together,” he says.

“It’s been fun. It’s been a challenge, absolutely been a challenge to say the least. The team is what made it work.”

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