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Q & A with Oakland’s Fire Chief Gerald A. Simon

on June 1, 2010

Gerald A. Simon

Although sometimes fire season is announced as early as April, since it has been a rainy winter and spring, the Oakland Fire Department is announcing it late this year. But with the rains ending and the land drying out, the department will officially announce the beginning of fire season within the next couple of weeks. Fire Chief Gerald A. Simon is overseeing this department to prepare for the upcoming summer and ensure that Oakland’s residents are safe from fire.

Oakland North reporter Dara Kerr spoke with Chief Simon about what it means to be the fire chief of Oakland and what led him to the job.

Q: What is the role of a fire chief?

First of all, I’d like to say that I’m exceedingly proud to be the Fire Chief of the City of Oakland. I find Oakland to be a very special and unique city and I’m very grateful to have had to opportunity to serve this community.

The role of the Fire Chief has a number of different elements. First and foremost is that I am responsible for protecting the 410,000 lives of the people that live in the city of Oakland. I’m also responsible for the life safety of the people who visit, recreate and shop in Oakland. It is my job to protect them from fire, emergency medical complications, terrorism threats, and a number of different things that might compromise their safety

The second element is to lead the 550 members of the fire department, the men and women who work here. That leadership involves helping them craft a mission (what we do), a vision (where we need to go), the values (our moral compass) and our goals (what we need to achieve) in order to be a world-class fire department. It’s also my responsibility to give them the tools and equipment that they need and make sure they do their job, and do it safely. And most importantly, my job is to do all that I can to train them in order to get them home safely to their families and loved ones at the end of the workday.

A third responsibility that I have is to make sure Oakland is as safe a city as we can make it. We also need to be a city that cares about each other. Toward that end, we have a number of community based fire services programs that we put in place to make sure our Oakland residents are both educated and informed about how to protect themselves in cases of disasters and emergencies. We also have programs such as the Random Acts of Kindness program, holiday food giveaway program, and a charity fund that demonstrate our caring side.

Q: How long have you been a fire chief?

I’ve been a fire chief for about 14 years. I was first a chief in Santa Clara, then in Oakland. I actually retired for a while. I then got a call to be the interim Fire Chief in Union City for a while. Retired a bit more then got a call to be the interim Fire Chief in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I retired again for a while and then Mayor Dellums honored me with a call and asked if I would help him lead the fire department through some very difficult and challenging economic and budget times. I came back to Oakland in October of 2008 and I continue to serve now. I have been in the fire service for a total of 33 years.

Q: Can you talk some about your upbringing in San Francisco and how you got to where you are today?

I was born in San Francisco. I was born into a very modest background. We lived in the Potrero Hill housing projects in my early life. We moved to Ocean View when I was in kindergarten. It was a very challenging time for our family because my dad was sick for many years. Looking out over the landscape of my life, at one point I didn’t think that I’d live past the age of 20. In terms of non-parental role models, I had two people who really took me under their wings in high school; one was a football coach, the other was an English teacher. They steered me in the right direction, and helped me get to college.

I’m very proud that my mom and dad believed in me, they stuck with me even when life was hard. My dad got better from his illness and eventually became a supervisor, then a manager. I am proud that my dad achieved good things in his life. My mother was always there to help guide our family.

The people at my high school taught me to set goals, to believe in myself, not to quit and never to give up. They also taught me that in all things that I do in my life, to be a person for others. My dad also taught me never to quit no matter what. I still live a lot of those philosophies in my life today. I readily look for challenges, set goals and seek opportunities to serve. I always try to serve to the best of my ability.

I think in the earlier parts of my life set an important foundation. We didn’t have a lot of money and we had to make due with what we had. We stuck together as a family and made it through some extremely challenging times. I’m really happy that today, despite those challenges, I serve proudly as a Fire Chief of Oakland.

When I talk to young kids who are struggling in their lives, I tell them my story, I talk about my background and I tell them that, like me, they can be anything they want to be if they just put their mind to it. Above all else, believe in yourself. I think they also have other great role models to emulate like President Obama. I have heard our president preach many of those same philosophies; being strong, live out the conviction of your values and don’t quit. I think all of these are great messages that we can give our young people today.

Q: What first got you to work in the fire department?

My story is not a typical fire department story. I went to Santa Clara University; I applied for a government scholarship to go to law school. Three weeks before the semester started they told me the program was running out of money and that they had lost funding, so they cut much of my scholarship. I couldn’t afford to go to law school at that point. A priest friend of mine told me to look into the fire service. I got interested in it and started to pursue it.

That’s what got me into the fire service, but what got me hooked on the fire service was the very first time I saved someone’s life. I used my emergency medical training, my two hands and my skill to save a young man’s life. Although it happened 34 years ago, I remember it like yesterday. He was 26 years old, and was driving a motorcycle and crashed into a fence. By standers put a blanket over his head because they thought he was dead. Twenty minutes later I had him talking to me about what happened, six hours later he was in surgery, and three weeks later he me brought two pounds of See’s candy to say thank you for saving his life. This was the first time I ever saved anyone’s life and I have been hooked on this career ever since.

Q: The Oakland Fire Department is known for its diversity. What does that mean for you?

We have people who come to Oakland from all over the world, from all over the United States. One of the things I absolutely love and value about Oakland is our diversity—the people, the culture and the lifestyle. All these things come together to make Oakland one of the most phenomenal places on the planet. It’s also important that our fire department reflect the diversity that is Oakland. We have firefighters that are all races, men and women with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. We value and celebrate our diversity; it is an important fabric in the make-up of our moral compass. It’s evident in our hiring, promotions and retention strategies. It’s how we blend, work and interact in our stations, living together each and every day. The Oakland Fire Department is a very close-knit family and I know from experience that our diversity serves us, and serves us well.

Q: Oakland is known for having big fires in the past. Why is this?

Just like Oakland is the most diverse city by people and population type, it is also the most diverse city by call type. Oakland firefighters respond to emergencies for all of the following: airport, high-rises, wildland urban interface, wildland urban intermix, confined space, an active railroad system, earthquakes, floods, protection of three professional sports teams, older building stock, a marine port where ships come in and out, hazardous materials facilities, and the Bay Bridge. All of these are a very big challenge to train for and protect. When you think about all of those things, there’s no other city in the United States that has the same challenges that Oakland faces.

Wildland firefighting poses some very unique challenges. What we’ve seen from the time of the 1991 Oakland fire, we’ve also seen in the San Diego fire and the fires in Malibu and Topanga Canyon: People build homes close to and in the middle of the wildland. As a result, you have the potential that the wildland can create a danger and a potential for fire spread. We’ve learned a lot of lessons since the 1991 hills fire. These days, we do a very good job of vegetation management and wildfire assessment management. The voters of Oakland established a fund to help us make sure our wildland protection capabilities are strengthened. They help us assure that we have less fuel to burn, that we have clear roads and better access to be able to fight hostile wildland fires. I think we’ve come a very long way. We stand able, willing and ready to protect our citizens from any wildfires that might befall us here in Oakland.

Q: What is your department doing to prepare for the upcoming fire season?

Typically what we do is send out informational brochures to all of our residents, particularly in the hills, telling them about good vegetation management practices. We also give them fire prevention tips such as keeping the fire wood piles away from their homes, trimming the trees away from rooflines and making sure their house is clear of vegetation and fuels that can burn.

We also prepare our firefighters in a practical way. Our firefighters go to Camp Parks every year to do a wildfire training exercise, and to practice what they would do in the case if they had a real wildfire. Also during high fire season we have roving patrols; our firefighters get out the stations and drive the area to look for potential fire or dangerous situations, particularly when winds are high and fuels are dry. The idea is to catch fire emergencies at an early stage so they don’t have an opportunity to get bigger or grow into a problem. Those are a few of things we do to prepare for fire season. These initiatives are about preparedness, prevention and mitigation for our community.

Q: Any tips for Oakland residents in fire prevention?

I would encourage everybody to get interested and involved in the CORE program—Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies—it’s a self-help class that the Oakland Fire Department sponsors and delivers. Many people don’t know or realize that in a disaster it can take anywhere up to 48 or 72 hours for firefighters to get to some of our residents homes because we are going to be dealing with significant, major emergencies and hazards. So we want our communities to be as self-sufficient as they can be. The CORE program teaches residents how to do light search and rescue, what to do to secure utilities, how to mobilize their neighborhood in times of disaster and how to protect their neighbors. Oakland’s diversity is also present with this program as we now teach CORE in Chinese and in Spanish.

Other than that, we of course encourage our young residents to learn stop, drop and roll, learn to dial 911, and we encourage them to make sure their parents have an escape plan in case of a fire. Assuring that every home has a working smoke detector is of critical importance. In keeping with Mayor Dellums’ goal to be a Model City, my goal for our residents is to assure that we become a Fire Safe City.

Lead image: Photo courtesy of the Oakland Fire Department.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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