A handful of candidates have qualified for interviews to potentially become Santa Monica’s next fire chief.
Staff said interviews are scheduled for the next couple of weeks but it will still take months to bring a new chief on board.
“With fire chief, much like police chief, we have to do through background exploration, plus the required medical exam and physiological exam,” said Donna C. Peter, director of human resources. “When you look at that kind of background, after you make an offer and the offer is accepted, it can take four to six weeks to complete that process.”
Santa Monica has been without a permanent fire chief since April of 2015 when Chief Scott Ferguson resigned to take a position with the Murrieta Fire Department. The department has been under the interim leadership of Chief Dennis Downs while the city searches for a full-time replacement.
The salary for the fire chief ranges from $219,972 to $271,572. Additional compensation covers retirement benefits, paid health insurance, vacation, sick leave and use of a fire safety vehicle.
The recruitment materials describe the ideal candidate as a collaborative and innovative leader willing to make a long-term commitment to ensuring Santa Monica remains a model of cutting edge emergency response. The recruitment brochure asked for candidates willing to embrace the department’s history of customer service with a track record of decisive leadership and innovation.
The material said short term impacts to the department will include expanded public transportation, a growing visitor population, new and taller development and emergency responses caused by chronic homelessness.
The new chief is expected to foster a diverse workforce while catering to the communication needs of the community.
“The leader of the SMFD must be comfortable with forging a strong and visible presence in the field as well as throughout the community,” said the brochure. “Given that Santa Monica is a highly engaged community, he/she shall have the proven ability to be effective working with a wide array of stakeholders.”
Additional traits include the ability to mentor others, listen to input and the ability to work with organized labor.
Captain James Altman, president of the Santa Monica firefighters union, IAFF Local 1109 said any new chief should have experience with dense, urban firefighting and that it’s important for a new chief to realize Santa Monica isn’t a small town, despite its relatively small area.
“We’re a large metropolis rolled up into 8.3 square miles,” he said. “We want to see someone that doesn’t forget that and realizes we are as dense as we are.”
He said over the last 100 years, the fire service has gotten better at fire prevention and education altering the kind of call that dominates the fire service.
“Our call volume in the [Emergency Medical Service] world is different than it was five years ago,” he said.
He said firefighters want someone that can balance the department’s history against the need to innovate and meet resident expectations while also supporting the needs of the frontline firefighters.
“When you look at our organization from 40-50 years ago and how we’ve championed new entities and new progressions and because our department is so progressive and so aggressive, we’re looking for someone to continue that trait but not jeopardize the top notch service we provide to the City of Santa Monica,” he said.
According to Altman, a new chief should be aware of the need to maintain customer service.
“The citizens are the reason why we exist,” he said. “When you move or buy a house in Santa Monica, you move to Santa Monica for a reason and we feel that we need to uphold those reasons that you choose to live here and we don’t want to negate the fact that you expect a high level of service and we don’t want to discount that at all. We really absolutely need a fire chief that will go in and will not be afraid to face the challenges they may have as a leader in backing up their guys.”
City Manager Rick Cole said he is looking for someone that is a forward thinking with the ability to maintain excellent service in the face of changing demands.
“Decades of public education, strict building codes and consistent inspections have reduced the number of structure fires in Santa Monica to less than one a week,” he said. “While we will always have to be prepared for the threat of fire, that’s now just one of the wide range of emergencies handled by our department. Some, like emergency medical calls, happen every day. Some, like earthquakes or a toxic spill, might not happen for decades. The next fire chief will have the responsibility of ensuring we are prepared to effectively address all of them – and to adapt new technology, new deployment models and new prevention efforts to ensure we keep Santa Monica safe in a changing world.”