Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Eric Nickel has announced he will retire at the end of the month.
Chief Nickel, who was named fire chief of the fire department in November 2018, said he has decided to retire after 33 years in the fire service to spend more time with his family.
“It’s time to take a step back and be of service to my family,” he told the News-Press on Wednesday.
Chief Nickel said the past 14 months have been “pretty challenging” for him personally. His 23-year-old son died by suicide in July 2019. His parents, in their late 70s, and his mother-in-law, in her 80s, have been faced with health and lifestyle challenges and need his part or full-time attention.
“You can’t be a good fire chief, a good son, a good husband and a good dad all at the same time,” he said. “The fire service certainly takes a lot of priority.”
Chief Nickel, 55, said he felt “really grateful” that he is still in a position to help his parents.
He came to the local department after serving as fire chief for the city of Palo Alto and Stanford University. Under his leadership, the department became one of 10 municipal fire departments in the state to achieve international accreditation.
Chief Nickel is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is professionally credentialed as a Chief Fire Officer through the Commission on Professional Credentialing.
He has worked for six fire departments in Southern and Northern California throughout his career, all of which faced wildland urban interface risks.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Cal State Long Beach.
Chief Nickel said the culture of the local fire department is “pretty special.”
“It’s the hardest thing to walk away from,” he said. “It really tugs my stomach having to walk away from such wonderful men and women.”
He explained that the department has a concept called peer support, where rank didn’t matter because all members of the department are exposed to various circumstances during their careers.
“Thirty years of service is typically the standard, and it’s really hard to do that without experiencing some sort of difficulty,” he said. “We have a strong peer support program in what is really a pretty special place, a wonderful community and a great department.”
He was also appreciative of the strong mutual aid that has been formed among local agencies, which often come at critical times for the community.
“All that mutual aid really comes from the personal relationships we have developed,” he said.
The city will now conduct a nationwide recruitment to find a new chief, a process that typically takes anywhere from four to six months.
“I’m certainly leaving sooner than I had planned, but family jumped to the front of the line,” he said. “This has been a great assignment.
“Having been a fire chief elsewhere, and serving as an acting fire chief as well, I can say that (Santa Barbara) is truly a gem.”
The department will be announcing an interim chief at some point in the near future, he added.
City Administrator Paul Casey told the News-Press that he didn’t anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the timing of the recruitment. He added that recent economic impacts the city has endured would not limit the city’s efforts.
“We need a fire chief — we will fill the position,” he said.
“It has been a pleasure to work with Chief Nickel – I really appreciate his professionalism and commitment to the Fire Service,” Mr. Casey said in an email. “I will miss working with him and wish him all the best.”
Chief Nickel’s last day as chief will be Oct. 31.