CITYWIDE — The Santa Monica Fire Department has named Judah Mitchell as it’s new Battalion Chief, a position that Mitchell said he is honored, humbled and excited to hold.
Mitchell has spent more than 27 years in the fire service, 17 of those in Santa Monica and Fire Chief Scott Ferguson said Mitchell’s ability to pass that experience on to young firefighters was an important factor in his promotion.
“Chief Mitchell’s energy and unique way to lace his leadership messages through stories is particularly valuable at a time when our department is experiencing so much growth and turnover,” he said.
Prior to joining SMFD Mitchell, originally from Detroit, was working as a firefighter in Ramona. He knew Santa Monica from brief trips to drop his daughters at the pier or on the beach where they met up with other family members from the Westside.
When the opportunity arose to apply for Santa Monica position, he said it was a great opportunity to move to the city and become part of a department that values the camaraderie of the service.
“With the size of the department, I felt as if I’d be able to join a family and that’s what I’m all about,” he said.
Mitchell has also served in the Navy and was employed in the retail market. He said both jobs prepared him for his future career.
It was in the navy that he got his first experience as a firefighter but he said it was his retail job that provided the foundation for his future success. He began work as a janitor at the retail store Nordstrom as a way to pay the bills and eventually worked his way up to manager. Doing so taught him the value of customer service and he said that’s a key lesson he brings to the fire service, focusing on the needs of the people he meets every day.
“(At Nordstrom) I was learning how to treat people and how to have people leave happy. (Residents) call me and I’m going to meet them at one of the worst times of their life,” he said. “But we’re going to help and be able to mitigate the problems.”
Ferguson said Mitchell’s focus on the resident experience is important to the department.
“While it is at the core of what we do, the service is much more that responding on fire and medical calls,” he said. “It’s about balancing the art of customer service against the shifting science of our profession. Chief Mitchell has a natural gift for creating an environment where our people are accountable for both.”
Mitchell has expertise in several specific areas such as urban search and rescue and hazardous materials but he said his favorite job in the service was always the front line truck company. He said he always enjoyed the physicality of the job and the knowledge that the work was part of a team effort to make calls safe for everyone.
“When I retire and reminisce, it will be about being on a truck,” he said. “Even when I made captain, I would switch with the guy in the back of the truck.”
Chief Ferguson said Mitchell also had natural leadership skills that are important to the long-term success of those working under him.
“Chief Mitchell has an intuitive ability to encourage people want to work hard and have fun,” he said. “He has no problem setting firm guidelines, but knows that a strong morale is critical in reducing the kind of stress that can cumulate over the course of career.”
As battalion chief, Mitchell oversees, about 30 guys in “A” platoon or a third of the department. He said his daily goals are to have everyone go home safe and to help his guys as they chart their own careers in the service. “It’s important they know that I’m here to assist them with their fire service career,” he said.
He said that focus on career support means he is always interested in working with a team that can leverage combined knowledge while also building the traditions of the department.
“If I’m the smartest guy in the room, I’m doing something wrong,” he said.
Mitchell said he feels his career has lessons that can help young firefighters progress.
“I want them to be able to learn from the mistakes or challenges I’ve had and maybe there is a chance they can zig their careers instead of zag,” he said.
The number one lesson he imparts is preparation, both physical and mental. “You should always read, always be prepared,” he said. “When promotion opportunities come up, they have a 90 day reading list and if you’ve taken the time to be prepared, that’s easy. You need to keep you knowledge and skill sets up to par,” he said. “We say you like your life depends on it because it does.”
Mitchell is the highest-ranking African American in the department’s history, an accomplishment he acknowledges is due to hard work and one he says he will honor with continued efforts to bring his best efforts to the fire department.
“I just let my work speak for me,” he said.