CITYWIDE — The Santa Monica Fire Department has been protecting residents for 125 years and in that time the department has evolved from volunteers with buckets to a full fledged, multi-talented emergency service provider.
The department’s growth can be attributed to many individuals but as of June 13, one of SMFD’s modern foundations will be officially retired.
Battalion Chief Mark Bridges retired last week after 34 years of service. He said he leaves the department with no regrets and gratitude for his time in Santa Monica.
“I’ve accomplished way more than I ever expected, I have no regrets,” he said. “I’m completely satisfied that I had a good career and I’m leaving a good legacy.”
Bridges joined the department in 1980 and said he didn’t intend to rise to the level of battalion chief.
“My career ambition was to be a fire captain, that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was already a fireman paramedic and then as soon as I could, I started taking the captain exams. There wasn’t much promotion or movement at that time so I had to wait about eight years but then I got promoted to captain and I loved that job.”
As the newest captain in the department, Bridges didn’t have a choice in his first assignment and he found himself working in the fire prevention department as a hazardous materials inspector. It was an assignment given to him because few others wanted the job but he said it blossomed into one of the foundations of his career.
He said the department was losing time and resources waiting for other departments to send in hazmat teams so he made a pitch to the chief. By 1994 that pitched had turned into a full-fledged team and the skills Bridges developed there became a focal point of his career.
“It opened up a whole new world to me,” he said. “I got up to speed on that with various classes and then we saw a real need to consider having our own hazardous materials team.”
Bridges said he could have finished his career happily as a captain but after surviving colon cancer in 2009 he felt the need to do more.
“That changed my whole perspective,” he said. “I didn’t want to come back just as a fire captain. I reflected on what the city and the department did for me and I needed to come back where I could do a little more and have a little more impact.”
He took and passed the test for battalion chief in 2010.
“Mark was promoted at a time when our department needed another paternal figure, one that listened well and loved his people, but was not afraid to have the occasional father-talk when necessary,” said Chief Scott Ferguson.
Bridges said the development of the hazmat team has become one of his proudest achievements at the department.
“Seeing the success of that and the truck, it’s become an integral part of not only the city, but a regional team,” he said. “It’s been recognized by the state so it can respond state-wide so I’m proud of that.”
Ferguson said Bridges’ skill in the hazardous materials arena will be missed and that he hopes Bridges will continue to share his knowledge with fire professionals.
“Mark is a natural teacher, with a particularly strong understanding of the chemistry of hazardous materials. My hope is that he will continue to consult and train after he retires — the service will be better if he does,” he said.
Bridges said he’s seen the department change over time. While the incorporation of new technology is a clear example of time passing, he said he’s also seen the culture of the department evolve.
“I’ve really noticed the emphasis placed more on customer service,” he said. “In the old days, when I first came on, you went and handled a call and you left. Now we’re much more involved in the community,” he said.
Bridges said he has no regrets or disappointments in his time with SMFD, but any career in the fire service will include some tough memories. He said the department has lost two young firefighters during his time and in both cases, breaking the news to other firefighters was difficult.
He said he has enjoyed working with other firefighters throughout the years.
“We’re getting a lot of newer guys,” he said. “Something like 40 percent have been here two years or less so that’s a lot of younger guys to teach and bring up in our tradition.
Bridges said he plans to continue to work at least part time during his retirement, and he already has a gig lined up — teaching hazardous materials to firefighters in Hawaii for three weeks.
Ferguson said Bridges retirement is well deserved but that he will be missed.
“Mark is respected as both a good man and a fine professional. He is a rare example of a leader that people naturally don’t want to disappoint — including me. More than most, he has managed to balance the rigor of this job with his family and his faith,” he said. “There are an number of fire officers that have shared Mark’s training and years of experience; but few that have the same sort of intuitive wisdom; I will miss his advice on how to best grow and develop our organization.”