City Manager Joe Weakland appointed Deputy Fire Chief Tim Hileman on Wednesday as the city's new fire chief.
Hileman replaces Reynold D. Santone Jr., who recently announced his retirement.
Hileman has worked for the fire department for 16 years, and in addition to being deputy chief, he has been the city's emergency management coordinator.
"He has done an outstanding job," Weakland told City Council. "And I do mean outstanding."
Hileman told council that the safety of firefighters will be his top priority, and customer service his "watchword."
The promotion was not a surprise, Hileman admitted after the meeting.
He's been preparing for it since his appointment as deputy chief four years ago, he said.
As part of that, he tried to learn as much as he could from Santone, who has been chief for 29 years.
"I was like a sponge," he said.
Santone taught him patience and stressed that the firefighters themselves were the department's greatest asset.
That translates into a resolve never to put those firefighters into a dangerous situation unnecessarily, Hileman said.
Young officers may want to go in, but he won't necessarily permit it, he said.
That resolve to put safety first came to the fore in the most recent of the many fires at the derelict Russo building on 31st Street, where the open spaces inside helped firefighters on an aerial ladder confirm with fair certainty that no one was inside.
Final confirmation actually didn't come until an inspection afterward, but that is almost always the case with structure fires, he said.
Hileman begins his tenure as the city awaits completion of a financial recovery plan under the state's Distressed Municipalities Program.
Consultants working on recovery plans in other cities have targeted fire departments for major cuts.
Some of the departments that have been targeted by Act 47 consultants in similarly sized cities were twice the size of Altoona's Fire Department.
Hileman wants to cooperate in the recovery effort by developing a departmental plan that fits within the larger overall city strategy. But he doesn't fear big cuts, because the city has already made those cuts incrementally over the last couple decades, he said.
Those cuts have left the department as small as it can be, while still being capable of covering a city of Altoona's square mileage, population and dwelling types - which include balloon framed homes within a few feet of each other and buildings near the railroad where there are decades of coal dust trapped in walls and ceilings, he said.
The budget for 2012 calls for 65 firefighter posts.
While the department workforce has shrunk, the breadth of its workload has increased, Hileman said.
And that has required training to match, he said.
In addition to fighting fires, the department is responsible for trench rescue, confined-space rescue, high- and low-angle rescue and hazardous materials response.
It also does quick responses to accidents as a supplement to the efforts of AMED.
Firefighters are required to be good in all of those areas, he said.
Asked whether those additions to departmental responsibility are an attempt to ensure the city will need the department well into the future - a job security move - he said no.
The department took on those extra responsibilities because it was needed, he said.
But even if it hadn't, the city would need the department at the size it is now, just for the fire protection, he said.
Hileman will earn $76,800 in his new post. The budget called for him to make $68,000 this year as deputy.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.