After ascending the command structure of the Long Beach Fire Department over 28 years, Michael Garcia chose to step back down the ladder to become a battalion chief five years ago when a new chief was hired.
Instead of working traditional business hours, Garcia maintained a firefighter’s schedule, clocking in for 24-hour shifts accompanied by extended days off. That trade-off and self-demotion allowed more free time for his three young children. He and his wife, Laura, an emergency medicine nurse, live in La Mirada.
Now, with his youngest a high school senior, Garcia decided on yet another career course correction to recapture part of the management job he missed: the satisfaction of seeing personnel he’s mentored accomplish heroic feats and become leaders.
The 32-year fire service veteran last week started as Laguna Beach’s 19thfire chief, taking over duties from acting Fire Chief Tom Christopher at a salary of $192,000 a year. In his first week on the job, he’s surveyed about a third of the town’s fire roads and expects to complete an aerial survey soon. And this week, Garcia got a taste for local governance culture at a City Council meeting that ended after midnight. One protracted debate over land-use restrictions hinged on fire safety on traffic-clogged streets that fire engines traverse with care. He was spared being asked to take a stance.
Garcia knows the honeymoon won’t last. Even so, he’s more than familiar with the risks and issues faced by fire fighters and towns perched at the edge of the “wildland interface,” where development meets brush covered open space.
His worst experience as a firefighter came 15 years ago leading a Long Beach strike team battling a fire in Ventura County as it raced towards heavily populated Santa Clarita. The wind shifted unexpectedly and surrounded the crew, with smoke obscuring the afternoon skies as if it was midnight. Before deploying the crews, Garcia fortunately had identified a potential refuge in a structure where brush had been cleared. All retreated there until the firestorm blew over and “we could ride it out,” he said.
Garcia said Laguna’s unusual topography means fire fighters spend a part of every shift training to sharpen their skills. The chief leads a 41-person department with a budget of $11 million. Its four stations annually respond to 3,800 requests for service, a majority of them medical emergencies. About 15 percent of the calls involve car and cliff rescues and another 15 percent involve fires, a city budget summary said.
“There’s a reason to spend so much time training,” he said. Garcia’s background includes expertise in fire operations, administration, fire prevention, emergency preparedness and staff training. He holds a bachelor of science degree in vocational education from California State University, Long Beach.
Garcia intends to see through a fuel-modification initiative started by his predecessor, interim Chief Kirk Summers. Rather than a piece meal approach to brush clearance in the town’s internal canyons, the consultant is developing a broader strategy.
When asked about a city initiative to remove power lines from evacuation routes, Garcia said, “anything that provides a higher level of safety, I’m in favor. A downed line can plug up an artery pretty well.”