Santa Maria Fire Chief Leonard Champion has watched the city — and its fire department — grow during his 30 years with the department.
He is set to retire Dec. 17, four years after being appointed fire chief.
Chief Champion, born and raised in Santa Maria, joined the department in 1990 as a reserve firefighter. He began his full-time career in 1993.
His father, Mike Champion, served as a reserve firefighter in Santa Maria from 1975 to 2005 — 30 years of service as well.
Next, Chief Champion plans to spend more time teaching at the Fire Academy at Allan Hancock College, where he trained years ago. He has taught at the Santa Maria college for around 20 years.
“I’ll still be able to stay connected to the profession in bringing up the next generation of firefighters,” he told the News-Press.
When he began, the fire department had three stations that responded to 4,000 calls a year. Now it has five stations, as well as a Santa Maria Public Airport location, and serves 10,000 calls annually.
He said the department has grown alongside Santa Maria, though the community has been integral in expanding its capabilities.
“Having been the fire chief for the past four years, I’ve really been able to see the generosity of the city and how the city gives back. It’s been really nice to see and be a part of,” Chief Champion said.
In 2012, Santa Maria voters passed Measure U, adding a quarter-of-a-cent sales tax to fund public safety services in the city. In 2018, voters increased the tax to a whole cent.
“The community holds public safety in a high regard, and they established that by passing Measure U,” Chief Champion said. “We were able to provide more service. Then it was further validated in 2018 when that measure was increased.”
He enjoys the support he’s received from city managers, city council and others at the head of their departments.
“Since I was born and raised here, it was quite an honor to be able to work in the community I was raised in,” Chief Champion said. “I’ve enjoyed the relationships I’ve built over the years here with so many people in Santa Maria.”
In 1997, his department nominated and honored him with the Firefighter of the Year award. He was honored to see his colleagues’ support.
“I am confident that as I retire, I’m handing off the department to the community in good hands,” he said. “We have a wonderful team. The guys keep their heads down and keep moving forward, keeping service at the forefront of their minds as they’re out serving calls.”
Chief Champion is proud of the team’s service during the pandemic, responding to sick people’s calls as well as deploying to wildfires in the state.
“These firefighters are the front line folks that are going to those who are ill and sick, so the exposure risk is high,” he said. “So thankfully our firefighters have been following all of the precautions.”
Chief Champion said the pandemic didn’t speed up his decision to retire, and he feels grateful he has been able to serve safely.
“I’m extremely proud of the department and the city and a career where I’m able to retire healthy, and not everyone in public safety gets to do that so I just feel very fortunate.”