New chief, old problems

Steve Standridge on his goals for the Chico Fire Department as well as inherited budget and turnover issues

Photo by Michelle Camy

The Chico Fire Department has been anything but stable this past decade. Like every other department within the city, it experienced cuts during the Great Recession that eliminated positions and reduced services. A federal grant received in 2014 artificially buoyed the CFD, but when that funding was lost a year ago, the department once again felt sweeping cuts.

Steve Standridge, who started in the position of Chico fire chief at the end of January, hopes to help the department heal. He hails from Colorado, where he served for 23 years with the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority outside of Denver, most recently as emergency management division chief. That department, he says, was huge—covering 172 square miles and comprising some 300 firefighters. At 51, he’s looking forward to working with a smaller, more intimate operation.

“He’s intrinsically a good fit,” said Mark Orme, Chico city manager, on narrowing the candidate pool and settling on Standridge for the job. “When there’s an opportunity to bring an external candidate into an organization, that’s something you want to take advantage of.”

But the CFD does have baggage.

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles facing the department, aside from the budget, is the high turnover at the top. From 1979 to 2008, CFD had three different chiefs. Since Steve Brown’s retirement, after 13 years at the helm, in 2008, the city has hired four different men to run the department and has endured months in between with interim chiefs. Suffice it to say, that’s bad for morale, says Standridge.

Orme agrees. “One of my primary goals with hiring for this position was stability. Part of the problem has been early retirement due to maxing out of benefits through CalPERS. Orme says that won’t be the case with Standridge. Because he’s a new public employee in California, his pension will be paid through provisions of the California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act, passed in 2013, he explained. What that means is, he won’t be eligible for retirement at all for five years. “He would have to work at least 10 years to get 27 percent of his single highest year’s salary,” Orme said. He currently makes $150,000.

The past decade, however, has been difficult. James Beery retired in July 2013 after five years on the job, during which time calls for service increased by 30 percent while staffing decreased by 14 percent. Keith Carter took on an interim role, as he had before Beery was hired, and retired from that role in April 2014, handing over the reins to Shane Lauderdale, who served, first as interim and then as chief, until December 2015.

Then it was Bill Hack’s turn. He also assumed the role of interim chief before being hired permanently, serving from January 2016 to August 2017. During an exit interview of sorts with the CN&R, he expressed remorse for having backed a $5.3 million federal grant proposal that brought the city 15 firefighters in 2014. Upon the grant’s expiration last year, the department laid off those employees, dropping daily coverage to 14 firefighters, from 17, and was forced to close two stations. To add to the problem, Butte County Fire, also experiencing a budget shortfall, closed its Station 42 last year. It overlapped with CFD’s jurisdiction.

“In today’s local government, there’s no idle sitting,” Orme said. “Sometimes we have to look at the model of how we provide those services. This is an opportunity [for Standridge] to work with his team, to develop the most optimal approach to providing fire services to this community. With resource limitations, how can we provide the highest level of services?”

With all those things in mind, Standridge sat down recently with the CN&R to discuss his reasons for choosing Chico, his goals for the department and what he sees as his key challenges.

What made you decide to come to Chico?

There were a couple reasons. One was personal, family. My immediate family—my dad and stepmom live in Santa Cruz; my mom lives in southern Oregon. Then I’ve got other family that lives up and down between those two places. It’d be nice for my kids to have a chance to spend more time with them.

Photo by Michelle Camy

And quality of life is terrific here. We’re very outdoors-oriented, so it’s nice to have that immediate access to the mountains and skiing and all those things we enjoy doing. So, it was a really easy decision that way.

The other big part was professionally. I was looking to be in a department where I could get to know everyone in the department. It’s a smaller community, so I could get to know people in the community and really develop substantive relationships. So, for me, it was all about the quality of the professional life as well. I felt this was a great fit for that and it’s a department that runs a lot of calls and is a very professional department, so it’s a really nice way to make that transition from what had become a very large department that was much more bureaucratic and corporate-feeling than what I was really wanting.

With a department so big, is it hard to get away from bureaucracy?.

It is. There are always advantages, obviously—capabilities, capacity. But they’ll be growing again at the end of this year, and they’ll have nine more stations, so it was just good timing for me to make the leap and sort of get back to my roots.

Coming into Chico, what are some of your immediate impressions?

Certainly, the community itself is a fantastic community, very vibrant. It has gone through a lot with the downturn in the economy and you’re just starting to feel that change. It’s always a great time to come in when things are getting better, and I suspect they will continue to get better unless something catastrophic happens economically. You never know, obviously. But the feeling is much more, universally, that things are starting to change.

I am amazed at the incredible dedication and passion and confidence that the men and women have here [in the department]. It’s very impressive to walk in and see that kind of capability in the force. For me, those were the two big things that struck me—how desirous the membership is, the department as a whole is, about trying to turn the corner from years of being beaten down, or [having] turned around from the downturn of the economy, a reduction in forces and yet still resilient enough to work through that, being that dedicated to the job.

So, the staffing is now 14 firefighters a day?

Yes, it’s 14 minimum per day. Which means that if someone calls in sick, we have to bring somebody in—that’s our minimum standard. That’s what generates overtime. We have very little room to maneuver.

Is there a lot of overtime because of that?

Yeah, you know, I’ve been hit up on several occasions by members of the community who are rightfully concerned when they look at Transparent California and, unfortunately, it does not tell the entire story. So, that salary is a function of several different aspects of the base salary that a firefighter gets; that’s just a standard baseline. Then we have overtime that’s related to the 14 minimum staffing that, regardless of what’s going on, we have to maintain that 14.

Then we have another facet of overtime that is related to our wildland deployments or large-scale deployments like the spillway [incident]. We have quite a few folks that are very involved on the state level, responding to the state for large fires—but also other large events. So all the backfill—if we have a member leave, just like if they called in sick, we have to maintain that position—not only is the overtime to fill that position paid for through the state, so is the salary of the person who goes down. So [the city gets] that 100 percent refunded.

People don’t realize that there’s a very distinct difference between them—one does not impact the city at all because we are getting reimbursed. That’s a very important distinction, because sometimes that gets conflated with the overall salary of somebody that is working a lot of overtime.

Photo by Michelle Camy

What are your goals or hopes for the department going forward?

I have two significant goals that I’d like to address as quickly as possible. One would be to increase our staffing to get to the baseline minimum that we need to operate and function—and that would be a minimum of 17 per day. That is just the baseline. We are operating, in my estimation, below that. So, that gets us at least to a baseline. But given the fact that we lost Cal Fire’s [Station] 42 and we are also just naturally, as a result of increased population, more dense and increasing our call volume … [and] we also lost capacity with both reducing the number of stations last year and losing Station 42. So, it’s been a triple whammy for us because we got hit in three different ways that continues to tax our personnel.

The second is management capacity. It takes a dedicated management team to manage the department and we’re missing a critical piece in that puzzle. And that’s the battalion chief rank that would be responsible for ensuring that they’re taking command, that they’re there in a timely manner and that they’re providing that oversight on incidents.

Additionally, just from a managerial, leadership standpoint, having that battalion chief in that mix to help coach, mentor [and] prepare folks for going up the chain of command—it’s quite a leap to go from captain up to division chief. There’s a skill set that comes with that that doesn’t necessarily correlate with being a good captain. We are just burning our division chiefs out because they are pulling both duties. Basically, they are running dual jobs—they’re running the administrative capacity as division chiefs and then they pick up shifts on evenings, weekends, holidays; they are then covering what would be the battalion chief rank.

From my vantage point, it serves a lot of purposes, to include safety to doing command and control, to having that leadership component in our structure so we get that additional leadership, oversight and responsibility back into our system.

Is that something that Chico did have and doesn’t anymore?

At one point. As I understand it, it was 20-plus years ago. It’s an unusual position to remove from the structure because, given our call volume, our risk profile increases. Whether it’s a large wildland fire that’s encroaching on our jurisdiction or it’s high-density homes, those are very complex, dangerous situations and they don’t come up that often, but they’re what we would call low-frequency, high-risk incidents that you have to prepare for. I’d really like to address that organizationally within the city.

So, you had battalion chiefs in Colorado?

It’s pretty common nationally. I had experience with it, and I found it to be probably one of the most critical positions in the department because of the overarching responsibilities a battalion chief has.

Why 17 for a baseline? Is that from the Standards of Response Coverage Study that the city commissioned back in 2016?

Yes. I go off that because it’s the most substantive analysis that’s been done. I’m a huge advocate of using documents like the standards of coverage to help drive the conversation and help predict where we want to be in terms of coverage, so it’s easy if you’re not familiar with how the fire department works to make declarative statements about reducing the number of firefighters, but it all comes at a cost. And again, that’s not for me to necessarily say. My job is to provide the most coherent, objective assessment of what that impact would be one way or another. Then the policymakers can make their decision about which direction they want to go.

What will it take to get staffing numbers up?

Funding. That’s just the bottom line of it. The emphasis has obviously been toward making sure other areas are made more whole.

Photo by Michelle Camy

Does it seem to you like fire has been overlooked?

No, I think it’s a very fair position for the policymakers to make a determination of what the needs are of the community and, clearly, from their standpoint, police [staffing] was a very much needed area of focus. As are our roads. So, everybody is struggling to get up there. We’re all in it together. It’s just a matter of how do we get that staffing that we need?

Have any creative ideas?

I do. I’m not sure I’m ready to share those, because they may see some pushback and I want to make sure all of my ducks are in a row.

About cannabis: Do you have any thoughts, from a fire perspective, about the city’s recent decision to only allow gardens inside?

I’m not aware of that—I’m still getting the lay of the land. What we did see [in Colorado] was that there were … a lot of basement operations—everyone has a basement in Colorado. It’s hard to project or predict what will happen here.

Is growing indoors a concern?

Sure. There was an incident that occurred a few years back with my old department. A grow operation was discovered and a fire broke out. We nearly lost a crew because the fire grew so rapidly and it actually made its way behind them as they made their way through the basement. What they discovered afterward was that [the growers] had partitioned off the basement walls and made little grow rooms in there and put in a lot of lighting—ad hoc lighting, grow lights and so forth. So, it’s always a matter of obviously the hazardous materials as well as the reconfiguration of living spaces that would otherwise be laid out like a normal apartment.

Chico’s seen a pretty high turnover in chiefs. Do you see that as affecting morale?

It very much does. It’s very destabilizing. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of that is you have a workforce that has to turn toward each other for support. So, having that constant churn at the top—that goes back to what I said earlier about how we have to create a more sustainable management structure as well as a more sustainable staffing level, the boots on the ground. It is a very troubling issue to have that kind of turnover. I have concerns because the position of division chief is not a very coveted position—because it entails so much work and it pulls people from their families. We don’t have a lot of people who are very interested in moving in that direction.

Do you see yourself staying here for a long time?

I intend to retire here, to finish off my career here. I’m 51. My family and soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son—it’s very disruptive to move them around. So, it would be detrimental to my family. It’s also very disruptive to an organization to have that constant turnover at the top.

Butte County is looking pretty seriously at reconfiguring how it does fire. The supervisors recently told staff to look at creating a service area that could include cities like Chico or Oroville. How might that affect Chico?

It’s hard to project what direction that could take as far as including Chico in that model. It’s not a cheap venture—there’s infrastructure that still has to be developed or transitioned somewhere else—things like dispatching centers, facilities, all those now become the city or the county’s responsibility, or the district’s. The bottom line is that if the county takes that on … we’ll have to sit back and see how things unfold. Right now, my focus is on the city of Chico.

What do you see as the biggest fire hazards in Chico?

Certainly, the hazards are high-density homes, apartment complexes. Whenever you have a more urbanized area, with tighter-density pockets, you just have a naturally higher fire rate. It’s a predictive aspect of the data. That is a big one for me. Our senior living homes are another big hazard because of the limited mobility of our senior citizens in those homes and the staffing levels that many of them have that don’t allow for quick and rapid egress and evacuation of those homes. They are a major concern.

Certainly, the wildland/urban interface is a big concern as well. Bidwell Park and then what kind of impact does that have around us? And in terms of being able to be a catalyst for large, large loss. We have a railroad coming through our jurisdiction that has potential [for fire], and then our natural, day-to-day activity—the number of calls and the overlapping calls that limit our ability to respond to multiple calls at one time. Our growing population will have a growing impact on our service levels.