Fire chief signs off
Chico Fire Chief James Beery steps down to make more family time
Chico Fire Chief James Beery acknowledges that on the surface, his July 3 retirement announcement may appear to be related to the city’s ongoing reorganization process.
“I get the timing and how that looks,” Beery said during a recent interview at Chico Fire Station 1 on Salem Street. But Beery, 52, insisted that after a 34-year career in fire-safety services—five of those years guiding Chico Fire Department, which was operating on a reduced budget following the national recession beginning in 2008—he isn’t the slightest bit daunted by “the reorganization, or managing the difficulty of this fiscal mess.”
In fact, if his personal circumstances were different, he would welcome the challenge.
“You sit down, sharpen your pencil, figure out a plan and make it happen,” he said. “I like that. How can we become more efficient, more effective, and still provide the best possible service to the community?”
But as a single father with a teenage daughter attending Pleasant Valley High School, the 48-hour shifts associated with serving as one of the department’s battalion chiefs have proved too much of a strain on Beery’s home life.
“Most people know my wife died a year and a half ago,” Beery said. “I used to have a spouse who could help around the house and with my daughter, and that’s no longer the case. [My daughter] has been through a lot this last year and a half, and I’m not going to make her put up with it any more.
“[Retiring] is strictly so I can go spend more time with my daughter,” he continued. “It has nothing to do with the reorganization.”
Division Chief Keith Carter—who served as interim fire chief prior to Berry’s tenure—will fill the position on an interim basis for a second time while City Manager Brian Nakamura begins the process of hiring Beery’s permanent replacement.
Beery’s last day leading the department will be July 26.
Nakamura said in a phone interview that he was shocked to learn of Beery’s decision to step down, adding that “Chico was very lucky to have Beery.”
“To have someone of his caliber not just as chief, but as a working chief where he’s actually on duty, is just tremendous,” Nakamura said. “It really helped [members of the Fire Department] understand where they need to go, how to address critical issues and to maintain a level of professionalism expected of them by the citizens of this community.”
Nakamura, with guidance from the City Council and the human-resources division of the Administrative Services Department, will look both within the Fire Department and outside the city for a new chief. Nakamura noted that Beery, a transplant from Portland, Ore., is an example of a successful outside hire.
“His legacy is that he’s a great fire chief. He’s led the department through some difficult times, and those lessons we’ve learned from him will help us endure and get through the remaining difficult years,” Nakamura said.
Beery suggested the city already has a qualified candidate in Carter, who has been with Chico Fire Department for nearly 27 years.
“He’s been through the ranks and knows the department inside and out,” Beery said. “He’s a go-to person and he certainly has the respect of the men and women in this department.”
Whomever his successor, Beery said, he or she will face a challenge he’s grown accustomed to as fire chief—receiving more calls for service with fewer bodies available to respond. In his five years of leading the department, calls for service have increased by 30 percent while staffing has decreased by 14 percent. Further, the department likely will lose another three positions this year as part of the city’s sweeping budget cuts.
“We’re doing more and more with less and less,” he said. “We’re not yet broken, but we’re getting to that point.”
That point, he said, would involve no longer responding to medical calls in order to focus on fire-related incidents.
“I think that’s bad for the citizens; it’s bad for the community if we don’t [respond to medical calls],” he said. “But we have to be available for the fires.”
So, with challenges surely ahead for the Fire Department, what would Beery’s best advice be for Chico’s next fire chief?
“For me—and it has hurt my career at times—I just don’t care about the politics,” he said. “It’s not a popularity contest. If you know what’s the right thing to do, do it. Don’t get caught up in the politics, just do what’s right for the community. That’s why we raise our right hand and take that oath.”