Chief Hone at Fire Station 1 on Tuesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — When Santa Monica Fire Chief Jim Hone steps down Feb. 11 after 30 years of service, the one thing he will miss most is you.

The 55-year-old, who has been credited with enhancing the Santa Monica Fire Department’s ability to respond to natural disasters and acts of terrorism, said serving the residents, merchants and their employees has been a tremendous honor.

“I will definitely miss the people most,” Hone said. “We have a great community and we want to be able to provide the most exceptional service possible and I believe we’ve done that.

“I really have been blessed to have worked here for the past 30 years and to have experienced all of the things I’ve had. I leave feeling very satisfied with what we’ve accomplished and now it’s time to move on.”

Hone, who joined the SMFD in 1980 about a week after he met his wife of 24 years, Linda, said he would like to dedicate more time to her, his mentor, counselor and best friend. The two plan to travel the U.S., visiting friends they’ve met over the years of responding to disasters. The couple also enjoys dining out and plan to hit up some of Santa Monica’s popular restaurants.

Hone may also consider going back to teaching. His first gig may be helping his nephew teach high school wrestling in Torrance, the town where Hone spent much of his childhood. Hone used to wrestle at South High School in Torrance and at El Camino College, where he graduated in 1973.

“It will give me an excuse to get back in shape,” Hone said with a laugh.

Looking back on his days growing up in Torrance, it seems as if Hone was born to serve. His father was a deputy chief for the Torrance Police Department and his brother currently is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department. His step-brother worked for the Culver City Police Department and his step-mother was a sergeant in Torrance.

“They went to the law side and I gravitated toward the fire side,” Hone said.

Hone credits his love of sports and his competitive drive with helping him succeed. It is what inspired him to join the Air Force after college, signing up to become an aircraft rescue specialist, becoming responsible for rescuing victims of aircraft crashes and to fight fires.

“It seemed like an exciting career and was physically and mentally challenging,” said Hone, who spent six years in the Air Force, where he rose to the rank of assistant chief of training. He responded to aircraft crashes, building fires, traffic accidents, oil processing and refinery fires and brush fires.

During his service, Hone went to night school and earned an associate’s degree in fire service from the Community College of the Air Force, a bachelor’s degree in business management from the Wayland Baptist College and became an emergency medical technician and a paramedic.

After his service, Hone signed up to become a firefighter in Santa Monica. When he joined, the department had 30 firefighters and responded to roughly 5,600 calls a year. Now, the department has 31 firefighters for each shift, responds to roughly 12,00 calls a year and has a budget of $28.4 million with 128 employees.

“We’re a lot busier, that’s for sure,” Hone said.

One of his first calls as a rookie firefighter was a serious blaze that broke out at Robinsons at Santa Monica Place, which was still under construction at the time. It was one of the largest fires in Santa Monica’s history and delayed the mall’s opening.

“I remember ventilating the roof. I was up there cutting all the glass out of the sky lights to get the smoke out of there,” Hone recalled. “It was a large facility and to be breaking all that glass, it was an interesting experience. It was quite a challenging fire. It was so intense that the heat made some of the steal beams expand so far that they pushed out one of the walls about 18 inches. They basically had to rebuild that portion of the mall.”

Hone also remembers the Northridge earthquake and how damaging that was. Always one to rise to the challenge, Hone used the earthquake as an opportunity to improve the SMFD’s response to natural disasters. He created the Property Retrieval Program to stabilize damaged buildings and remove personal items for residents to allow for a more rapid demolition and reoccupation of nearby structures that are not damaged. Public safety officials asked for a copy of that program in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina.

The Northridge quake was responsible for 13 structure fires, 300 gas leaks and about 17 partially collapsed buildings, Hone said.

“That was a significant event for our community,” Hone said. “Our people performed very well and did a great job. It showed the community that we need to be prepared. It’s not a question of whether or not another earthquake will hit, but a question of when and we need to be prepared as a community.”

Working with the Red Cross, the SMFD instituted the “I’ve Got Seven” campaign which encourages residents and employees to create an emergency response kit with enough food and water to last seven days.

During his career, Hone has been called to six federal disasters, including the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11 attacks, where he helped coordinate urban search and rescue efforts.

Hone may be remembered most for deactivating and then reactivating the fire department’s dispatch center, which now has better technology and more staff to respond to calls. When the center was deactivated, Hone said equipment used was outdated and dispatchers were overwhelmed. By contact with the city of Los Angeles, Hone was able to secure $2.5 million in no-match grant funding to purchase new equipment, bringing the department into the 21st century.

The move was criticized by some residents and firefighters after it became clear that Los Angeles dispatchers were not as responsive nor had as much familiarity with Santa Monica as the old dispatchers did, leading to confusion on some calls and longer response times. The City Council eventually ordered Hone to bring dispatch back to Santa Monica.

“I wouldn’t call it an experiment. It was the right decision at the right time with the information that we had,” Hone said. “You can’t ask for anything better than the system we have now. It’s second to none.”

Hone said he has no regrets. He would have liked to have made more progress on creating a storage facility for the SMFD’s emergency response vehicles and equipment to better respond when a disaster strikes. Currently, equipment is stored in multiple locations, making it more difficult to mobilize quickly.

That will be something the new chief will have to tackle. Hone said the number of candidates have been narrowed down to five, and the person selected will most likely come from outside the department.

Hone said the new chief should be someone with an extensive fire service background, including knowledge about prevention. They must also have a good understanding of technology and how it can help the department.

“They also have to be dedicated to the community and be engaged, not just in emergency situations,” said Hone, who is a regular at community events and has served on several local boards, including the Santa Monica Bay Area Human Relations Council, the American Red Cross and the Police Activities League.

“Whomever the next chief is, they have to be committed to being here at least five and possibly seven years to allow the organization to get through some difficult financial times and create long-range strategic plans to make sure the department is prepared for the future.”

Those who would like to thank Hone for his service will be able to this Tuesday when the City Council recognizes Hone at its regular scheduled meeting. There will also be a retirement party on March 4 at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel.

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