SCHENECTADY — Donald Mareno has spent nearly 31 years doing what he always wanted to do: helping others.
It’s that passion which led him to join the Schenectady Fire Department in the summer of 1991 following a three-year stint as an emergency dispatcher with Schenectady County, and it’s what has kept him motivated in the three decades since.
“I always wanted to be in a field where I could make a difference, where I could help people,” he said. “That sounds so cliché, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to help people in their time of need, and this profession lends itself to that.”
Mareno, 63, spent 12 years as a firefighter before he began working his way up the ranks, first as a lieutenant in 2003 and then a captain in 2011 — a role where he oversaw the department’s EMS division.
In 2014, Mareno became a deputy chief before being promoted to assistant chief five years later in 2019 by former Chief Raymond Senecal, a close friend and mentor, who retired earlier this year following a 30-plus year career of his own.
On Monday, Mareno was officially sworn-in as the new chief of the Schenectady Fire Department after Mayor Gary McCarthy quietly promoted him a week earlier following a search that included several candidate interviews.
With his family in attendance and dozens of current and former members of the department, Mareno laid out the history of innovation of the fire department, including being the first department to use a steam fire engine, providing paramedic services and, more recently, adopting a telemedicine program.
“I am proud of this department. I am proud of its members, and I am humbled to be accounted among them,” he said to a standing ovation.
The first in his family to become a firefighter, Mareno said he doesn’t take his new role lightly and emphasized on more than one occasion that Senecal “set the bar high” in an interview last week.
But he said he’s ready to lead the more than 100 men and women that make up the department, who he plans to work collaboratively with while continuing to build on the “great relationship” the department has with City Hall.
The goal, Mareno said, is to do what is best for the department, its members and the citizens of Schenectady.
“We have that goal. We may approach it from different angles, but as long as we’re focused on that goal and we respect each other, we’ll do the right thing and we’ll get it done,” he said.
Mareno said the department is made up “of the most talented and courageous people” he has ever met, and he’s committed to ensuring the next generation of firefighters will build on the existing leadership that makes up the department.
But doing so won’t be without its challenges.
The department has struggled to attract new, qualified recruits in recent years, an issue fire departments across the state are facing. Recruits in Schenectady are required to have an EMT certification before they can be interviewed.
When Mareno took the civil service exam in the early 90s, he was one of more than 300 signed up. Just 36 people took the department’s last exam back in March, he said.
The department has bolstered its outreach efforts in order to attract new recruits by attending career fairs at local colleges, speaking at local schools and handing out information at places like the Schenectady Greenmarket.
“We have hiring challenges, so we have to continue to come up with ways to get the message out to the public on what we do to entice young people to get into this profession,” Mareno said.
It’s a rewarding career, Mareno said, made better by the people that make up the department.
“You’re only as good as the people you work with, and the men and women of this fire department make this fire department what it is,” he said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.