The fire that engulfed Madonna House in Belmont on Monday evening, May 16, was remarkable not only for its ferocity, but also for what it revealed about local government in Fredericksburg.
On the night of the fire, the fire department, department of social services and other agencies did what we expected of them. Put out fires, put people out of harm’s way, help displaced residents find temporary housing, and organize fundraisers for victims who have lost most, if not all, of their belongings.
However, it’s the things we didn’t expect these agencies to do that really stand out. Like having phone chargers.
The night the displaced residents were moved to the Fredericksburg bus station for temporary shelter, the city had an array of charging cords on site so the affected citizens, many of whom were wearing only the clothes on their backs and phones in hands, can to keep their phones charged so they can connect with loved ones.
“It doesn’t sound like a big deal,” says Christen Gallik, director of the city’s Department of Social Services, “but it was essential for these people that night.”
People also read…
That the city has it on hand is no coincidence. Following the January blizzard, when Gallik had to open a heated shelter at James Monroe High School, charging cords were a need they weren’t ready for.
“When that [event] was complete,” says Gallik, “we had a debrief and made improvements, like making sure we had different cell phone chargers.
Of course, debriefings are part of the workings of any large organization. So there is nothing exceptional here, except this.
For the leaders and employees of the City of Fredericksburg, their work and the criticism of their work is not just a process to follow. These things are missionary.
The town’s battalion chief, Jack McGovern, recalls the town’s values. “One is abundant compassion,” he says. “We chose to live this. And I think that’s true in every agency in town.
City values were established under the leadership of City Manager Tim Baroody. “We’ve been on a journey as a city, as a leadership team under Baroody,” says Gallik, “establishing our values, what kind of city we want to be. This work paid off in our response to the event at Madonna House.
The city’s six values are: 1. Agile Innovation, 2. Abundant Compassion, 3. Exceptional Customer Service, 4. Dynamic Work Environment, 5. Essential Management, and 6. Unwavering Stewardship.
These values don’t just live on a shelf, says Gallik. “You will see them in most buildings in the city that you enter. We give them to all new recruits. We try to make it our way of doing business.
Commitment to these values ran through every interview conducted for this editorial. For Mike Jones, the city’s fire chief, these values are the reason for the high level of interaction and cooperation between city agencies.
“When the Madonna House fire happened,” Jones said, “it wasn’t the first time we saw social services and the police; we have worked with them before.
“What we envision is to be very collaborative,” he says. This is something Gallik and McGovern also point to, referring to regular inter-agency meetings and the mutual commitment to keep each agency informed of initiatives and key people.
Our “people, and mid-level leaders and managers” here in the city, Jones says, “instill in their people that we’re here for the community. … They are the fabric” of this city.
Of course, leaders make mistakes. Gallik concedes that “we didn’t understand everything in this response. We are already talking about what we would do differently next time.
Whether it’s something as simple as cell phone chargers or something more complex, knowing that the city is committed as an organization to self-improvement is all that each of us between us can ask.
At a time when government is too often framed as the enemy, it’s important to remember that in Fredericksburg, at least, city leaders get it. Government is there for the public good.
And they live this value every day.