Service, Bravery, Safety
Formed in 1946, the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District – which is now comprised of four fire departments, spanning approximately thirty-eight square miles – has flourished from modest beginnings. What began as an all-volunteer district that started in a single shed is now a full-time fire protection agency that serves over 29,000 citizens. With the mission of upholding a sense of duty, pride, teamwork, appreciation, leadership, and familial support, the district is truly committed to the safety, health, and prosperity of its residents. Read along as we talk to Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief Tony Michel about the history and development of the district, as well as disaster prevention and preparedness, including the response the departments made to the recent Bernardo Fire.
Q&A with Fire Chief Tony Michel
When was the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District opened? Can you provide us with information regarding the history of the departments?
The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District officially formed in 1946 as an all-volunteer district. The district was housed in a shed owned by the irrigation district until 1953 when they purchased land from the irrigation district. Station 1 on El Fuego is still located on that land today.
During the late 1950s, Fire Chief James A. Fox better organized the volunteer firefighters into a force of trained personnel and eventually hired the first paid firefighters in the community. He also obtained permission from the board for the State of California Office of Civil Defense to lend the district a new pumper and rescue truck to augment the district’s aging pumper.
Chief J. Fox soon recognized the district’s need for an ambulance and led the district to design, procure, and construct one of this country’s first Mobile Intensive Care Units. This first “Hospital on Wheels”, which was later named “Daisy”, was recognized nationwide as a model program, receiving awards for innovation. In 1970, to further aid in quicker response times, the first 9-1-1 emergency telephone system in Southern California was brought on line in Rancho Santa Fe, preceding all others by more than ten years!
Chief J. Fox retired from the fire district in 1981, and his son, Peter Fox, was appointed fire chief. He carried on the tradition of constructing firefighting vehicles and pioneering innovations at the district facilities. In 1983, a new fire station was built on El Apajo to serve Fairbanks Ranch, Whispering Palms, Circo Diegueno, and Rancho Santa Fe Farms. The full-time staff swelled to thirty-three employees. Reorganization took place on the eastern boundary in 1987, when the County Service Area was dissolved and the Del Dios Volunteer Fire Department, along with its firefighters, was brought under the district’s leadership, adding to their training and increasing the forces of the fire district. 1987 also saw the departure of Chief P. Fox and the board of directors appointed Arden L. “Pete” Pedersen as Fire Chief. The community agreed to increase the size of the board from a three-member to five-member board.
In 1990, nine new firefighters were hired to staff the new 4S Ranch station, which consisted of a double-wide mobile home and metal apparatus building. This “temporary” station remained in service for twelve years until a permanent station opened on Four Gee Road in 2003. The building project was overseen by Chief Erwin Willis, who replaced Chief Pederson when he retired in 1993. Chief Willis also oversaw the completion of Station 4, which opened in 2004 along Del Dios Highway. Chief Willis also greatly increased the district’s fire prevention efforts and helped develop Shelter-in-Place communities.
Chief Willis retired in 2005 and Nicholas Pavone was selected as the next fire chief. An employee of the fire district since 1979, Pavone’s accomplishments as fire chief include working with the Del Mar, Solana Beach, and Encinitas Fire Departments to form a fire management services agreement and defending the fire district against the Witch Creek Fire in 2007. He retired in 2010, at which time I was promoted to the position.
What is your role within the department? What are your specific responsibilities?
As fire chief, I am tasked with overseeing the overall operations of the fire district and each of its three departments: suppression, prevention, and administration. I am also responsible for ensuring that the district’s mission is carried out. Additionally, I work with the board of directors and management on long-range planning as we strive to meet needs and expectations of community.
What is your professional background and how did it lead you to your current position?
I have thirty-one years of experience in the fire service. I began my career in 1983 as a cadet firefighter for the fire district. Since that time, I have worked my way up through the ranks of the fire district, serving as a student firefighter, firefighter, engineer, captain, deputy fire marshal, CERT program manager, deputy chief of training, and deputy chief in charge of operations. I also have a BA degree in Fire Science and a California State Chief Officer Certification.
Can you explain the structure of the department, in terms of personnel and shifts?
The fire district is governed by a publicly elected board of directors. The fire chief works directly with them to oversee the operations of the fire district, manage the district’s finance, and create and implement strategic plans. The chief also oversees the district’s three departments: suppression, which is managed by the deputy chief, prevention, which is managed by the fire marshal, and administration, which is managed by the administrative manager. Prevention and administration employees typically work a normal work schedule, but suppression personnel work a shift schedule. There are three shifts, A, B, and C, which work out of each of our four fire stations. Each shift is twenty-four hours long and rotates on specific schedule of days on and off.
How is the department organized? What type of selection process determines who will become a board member and what are they responsible for?
The district has a five-member elected board of directors. There isn’t a “selection process” as the criteria is determined by the California Government Code. The minimum qualifications are a minimum age of 18, that he or she must reside within the fire protection district boundaries, and he or she must be a registered voter. The board of directors is the governing body of the fire protection district and can only exercise their powers by motion, resolutions, or ordinance. The board of directors sets the overall direction of the district through their role as a policy maker. The policies that the board sets are the guidelines for administration as it does the job of running the organization. A board member will also spend time serving on standing and/or ad hoc committees, create new policies, suggest and/or approve programs. All board members have a fiduciary responsibility and must act in the best interests of the organization and/or taxpayer they serve.
What is a typical day for you like?
My typical day is spent addressing the needs of the community and making sure employees have the tools they need to do the best job possible. My day often starts in the office reading emails, returning phone calls, and talking with department heads. From there I can be doing anything from meeting with community members, collaborating with the county or other nearby agencies, responding to large-scale incidents and whatever is necessary to make sure the community’s needs are being met.
Please elaborate about the responsibilities of the department in regards to the emergency response team, prevention programs, and safety.
Our organization is mission-driven, and our mission requires us to provide the best level of service. These services include quick emergency response and providing communities and residents with the information and tools they need to help prevent emergencies from happening.
Do you offer safety classes such as CPR for community members?
The first district will be able to begin offering CPR for certification within a couple months. However, we currently offer instruction in hands-only CPR, or sidewalk CPR. We also do presentations for homeowners associations and other similar groups on a variety of topics including wildfire preparedness, what to do if there’s an emergency, landscaping, etc. Additionally, we have Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Members go through a training program and learn valuable skills to help their families, neighbors, and the community should there be a disaster.
Are you currently looking to hire firefighters? What type of training do firefighters go through?
We are not looking to hire any firefighters at this time. When we are hiring, we require firefighter applicants to have a current State of California Paramedic license and a California State Fire Marshal Firefighter I Certificate and/or have graduated from a State of California 240-hour Firefighter I Academy. Upon successful completion of the application process, firefighters are hired on a year-long probationary basis, working as part of a shift crew while completing training and testing in all areas of the fire service and the policies and procedures of the fire district. Once that year is successfully completed they obtain regular firefighter/paramedic status.
What mission or philosophy does the fire department hold true?
The mission of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District is “To protect life, property, and environment through prevention, preparedness, education, and emergency response”. Everything we do, from financial and strategic plans to daily operations, is done to fulfill that mission.
What is the most gratifying aspect, for you, of servicing the 92067 areas?
The most gratifying aspect is simply doing my job to the best of my ability on a daily basis and knowing that the community will receive the best service possible because they have the best fire service available.
What challenges do you face in this particular region?
Being in the wild land-urban interface is the single biggest threat in this area and it is ongoing. The current drought situation only exacerbates the problem. When you have homes intermixed with wild land and vegetation like we do here, the threat of a large and devastating wildfire is very real.
Can you tell us about the district’s role with the Bernardo fires? Please elaborate about response and action methods.
District crews were the initial resources to arrive on this incident. These units initiated a rapid attack on the fire and organized the initial command structure to manage the fire. This structure expanded into a unified command with CAL Fire and the City of San Diego Fire Department as all three agencies were affected by the incident. During the first day of the incident all district resources were committed to both firefighting and command functions. The fire district utilized all personnel and fire stations for extinguishment and protection purposes. We worked under a unified incident command with CalFire and San Diego Fire Department, which allowed us to share resources and expertise. During the initial suppression stages we had management overseeing efforts on 50% of the fire line.
Do you have any advice for the 92067 residents about ensuring their safety?
Weed abatement and vegetation management is a large component for maintaining fire-safe neighborhoods. We encourage everyone to maintain 100 feet of defensible space around their homes. We also encourage residents to take advantage of our community education and fire prevention programs.
What are the most common types of calls this district responds to?
The majority of our calls are emergency medical services related.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
It is very rewarding to see people within our organization succeed and to know that we have an organization that strives to provide the highest level of service.
How can community residents schedule fire inspections or visits to the station?
Residents can schedule fire, vegetation management, and/or landscaping inspections with one of our fire prevention personnel. Our public education coordinator is available to schedule fire station tours and community presentations. All inquiries can be made by calling the administration office at 858-756-5971.
What’s in store for the district in the future?
Our goal for the future is to continue to strive to improve the level of service for the protection of the community.
The thirty-eight square mile district is served from four fire stations:
16936 El Fuego (Downtown RSF)
16930 Four Gee Rd. (4S Ranch)
6424 El Apajo (Fairbanks Ranch)
18040 Calle Ambiente
All four stations are staffed with a paramedic assessment engine company, with Stations 1, 2, and 4 housing specialty wild land firefighting and rescue apparatus. In addition, Stations 1, 2, and 4 house an Advanced Life Support (ALS) paramedic unit staffed by the current ambulance provider to the district, American Medical Response (AMR). All of our stations are relatively new and built to meet the operational needs of the district for the next fifty years. Station 3 is our newest station, rebuilt in 2012 to meet current seismic standards and the needs of the community. Station 2 is also the district’s training facility which is used as a regional training facility for the north zone.
Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief
Name: Tony Michel
Education: BA in Fire Administration from Cogswell College
Family: Wife – Patrice; Son – Steven; Daughter – Katherine
Hobbies and Interests: Fishing, camping, hiking, boating
Rancho Santa Fe Fire District