Usually, the operations division chief steps up when a fire chief retires. But when former fire chief Eric Nickel retired at the end of October for unforeseen personal reasons, the number-two spot was also empty.
So Chris Mailes, then a battalion chief, was appointed interim fire chief a few weeks ago. He says the change is “unheard of” in his department.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s gone pretty well so far,” he said in a News-Press interview.
“I’ve received such a warm welcome,” he said. “As a kid who grew up in Santa Barbara and had a dream of working in the Santa Barbara Fire Department, this is truly living a dream for me.”
He said as soon as he was appointed, every department head in the city reached out.
“What is most clear to me right away is how we have an amazingly collaborative executive team in the city,” he said. “My success is their success. It’s amazing to see how the good comes out and everyone wants me to succeed.”
His first task was to appoint the operation division chief, and he began thinking of ways to advance the department. He began by looking at former fire chief Nickel’s five-year plan that covers 2019-2024.
“He was a visionary. He’s the one that set us on a plan moving forward and having tangible guidelines and areas to work on,” he said. “We miss him already, but he’s given us a really good foundation to move forward on.”
The department looked at the initiatives set by the former chief in areas such as training, internal and external communication and staff wellbeing.
“He was truly a professional fire chief. He had great knowledge of economics and the budget, the people, the role of a firefighter on a fire engine,” Mr. Mailes said.
The two first met 30 years ago while they were training at paramedic school in Los Angeles. They knew each would move on to their respective cities but didn’t predict they’d work together years later.
The search for the next fire chief will take approximately six months.
“I appreciate Chief Mailes’s willingness to step up and lead the Department during this transition. We have an outstanding Fire Department, and I trust that Chief Mailes will be able to keep the Department moving forward on a number of key strategic issues during this time,” city administrator Paul Casey said.
Chief Mailes said he’d feel fortunate if the city hired him for the job, but he prioritizes the department’s future successes over his own.
“I’m definitely interested in applying for the position if my strengths are something the city is looking for. But right now, I’m just focusing on the next six months,” he said.
He has served in the department for 28 years and will continue to do so in whatever role is needed.