The Heat is On for Derek Silva, the New Providence Fire Department Chief

From bucket brigade to professional stations, a glimpse inside department challenges and goals


Derek Silva became the youngest fire chief in Providence’s history filling a role that was left vacant for the previous eight years. Between updating old systems and practices to rebuilding morale in the ranks, Silva has his hands full. He has already rewritten the department handbook, known as “the Bible” for rules and procedures that hadn’t been updated since 1997. He jokes that “email” wasn’t even mentioned in the old edition.

Silva may be one of the best positioned chiefs to mend fences, having served as union president and in both fire fighting and administrative positions. He wants to see a more data-driven department that can adjust to priorities and best respond to the ever-changing demands of the job. 

In a bit of irony, Silva was originally interested in becoming a police officer, but in high school he walked by a fire station in Lincoln and saw a sign for a volunteer program; he walked in, signed up, and a new career direction was launched.

Providence’s fire service began in 1759 as a volunteer bucket brigade, and in 1854 became the second professional fire department in the country. Today, when a truck arrives in response to an emergency, the firefighters deal with the actual call, which could be a fire, the smell of gas, a stuck elevator, car accident, or physical or mental crisis. The challenge is that no one knows what the needs of the emergency are until they get there. Silva’s mission is to figure out how to adapt to the new realities to create a fire department that serves everyone.

Red fire alarm pull-boxes used to dot every neighborhood, and while a number remain, most have been removed since most everyone has a cell phone, resulting in less false alarms. While Providence still has many wooden structures, all rehabs and new construction must follow building codes where fire protection is a priority, from implementing fire-resistant materials to installing sensitive smoke detectors. Today, of the 45,000 calls to the Providence Fire Department (PFD), only 3.75 percent are for fires and 72 percent for rescues, compared to 1980, when 28 percent were for fires and 47 percent for rescues. 

In the last six years, the PFD has added four rescue vehicles and closed two stations – both on the East Side, at Humboldt and Rochambeau avenues – and eliminated a ladder truck from the North Main Street station.

“We’re still able to deliver fire services within the National Fire Protective Service guidelines of five minutes (80-second turnout and 320-second travel time) to the East Side,” explains Silva. “Timing is critical. A fire truck is dispatched with each rescue as they are often closer to a call and firemen with EMT training can deliver basic life-saving services until a rescue arrives.” Many firefighters have their EMT certifications and “ideally, we’d have more EMT-C (cardiac) trained firefighters, but the certification is an added cost and takes approximately 14 weeks of in-class training.”

Many rescue calls could and should be handled differently. With only seven heavily used rescue trucks, mutual aid is often called in for backup – this is where things can get dicey. Cranston, North Providence, Pawtucket, and East Providence all border the city and are regularly in play, but there have been times when the PFD has had to reach out as far away as Coventry – 35 minutes away. An added issue is that some cities and towns bill patients directly for their services.

Another reason for taxed rescue delays are the hospitals. Rhode Island Hospital is the only Level I Trauma Center in southeastern New England and is always busy. Since Memorial Hospital’s closure, Miriam Hospital gets more traffic, and the emergency room is often near constant capacity.

But the biggest challenge that the department faces is mental health calls and the widening behavioral health crisis. People needing these services often can’t secure help or coverage but know calling 911 means someone will show up. Individuals can end up being taken to the hospital where they are evaluated and sent for treatment or released, and the cycle often repeats itself.

The Fire Department has 367 members, down from the 420-450 because of retirements and the lack of a new fire academy class in 2018. To help bring the numbers up, the department is recruiting lateral transfers from other departments. Even amid these challenges and the game of catch-up Chief Silva faces, he looks forward to making improvements in the PFD.



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