Updated July 6, 2017
Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse plans to retire in August and a veteran fire administrator from outside the department has been appointed as the interim chief.
Kirk Summers will step into the position vacated by LaTendresse, effective Aug. 7, city officials said.
Summers will start a month into a four-month fire season predicted to be busy for firefighters from grass growth due to winter rains and a build up of drought-killed brush, Calfire spokesman Richard Cordova said.
Council members were informed early Friday of the department shake-up, but were provided no explanation about LaTendresse’s departure.
LaTendresse, who personally oversees contractors that put on the city’s July 4 fireworks show in Heisler Park, said he’s looking forward to his first summer vacation in years. “It’s a good time,” said LaTendresse, though he is unsure about what comes next. “I haven’t written that chapter,” he said.
He intends to spend some of the next month meeting with Summers on administrative details. “I’m completely confident in him; he’s got more wild land experience than I do,” said LaTendresse.
“He’s very respected and will be a stabilizing force,” said Costa Mesa Fire Chief Dan Stefano, a former Laguna Beach division chief who worked previously with Summers.
Summers lives in Trabuco Canyon and has four decades of experience in the fire service, including working in 2015 as interim fire chief for the City of San Gabriel. “It’s difficult to find someone in Orange County who has good experience,” Pietig said.
Summers retired in 2012 as fire chief for the Chino Valley Independent Fire District, where he directed seven fire stations in Chino and Chino Hills. He has also been employed as deputy fire chief of operations at the district as well as a battalion chief and fire captain at the Orange County Fire Authority.
LaTendresse, the city’s 18th fire chief, was promoted to the department’s top job in October 2012. And prior to his two decades with the city’s fire department, he worked for the Cathedral City and Indio fire departments and as a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force.
As chief, LaTendresse earned $279,000 a year in pay and benefits in 2016, making him the city’s fourth highest paid employee, according to Transparent California, a website with public employee pay records. He commands a $12 million department with 41 employees, city budget records show. Its four stations annually respond to 3,800 emergencies, the majority of which are medical aid calls, but range from fender-benders to wild land fires to hikers that need rescuing from steep cliffs. The department also is responsible for fire prevention, from hiring goatherds to clear brush to reviewing construction proposals.
During his tenure, LaTendresse took part in extinguishing fires and coping with floods and landslides. More recently, he’s pushed to expand paramedic services to all fire engines, hired the department’s first civilian fire marshal and advocated for a change in scheduling the command staff that took affect this week that should improve retention and recruiting.
Previously, the department’s three division chiefs worked business hours, but every third week remained on call to respond to major incidents without overtime pay, Pietig said. They were also expected to live no more than 12 miles from city limits. Recruiting captains for those positions became difficult, Pietig said. Now, battalion chiefs will work the same shift schedules as the crews, on for 54 or 56 hours at a time, and remain in the stations, Pietig said.
Laguna’s fire department was the only one in the county organized in such a way, said Stefano, calling the shift in command staff long overdue.
“The change is creating succession planning,” said LaTendresse, who recently had to hire outside the department for a division chief. “Nobody internally was interested; the schedule and on-call status was a factor,” he said.
He predicted Summers will be on the job for at least four months, the time it took him to recruit and hire a civilian fire marshal.
Though he didn’t say so at the time, LaTendresse took a first step toward outlining his new chapter when selling a home last year that he co-owned for 16 years with his employer.
Up until the recent change in shift schedule for the command staff, division chiefs were expected to live in town as part of the city’s emergency-response plan. LaTendresse and his wife Mindy, who formerly worked in the city’s planning department and city clerk’s office, were the first participants in the city’s essential employee housing assistance program, says a June 2008 agenda bill. LaTendresse took advantage of the equity-sharing program when he was a division chief, buying a home in 2000 on Noria Street in the Arch Beach Heights area The home occupied by the couple sold last August for $1.6 million, according to Multiple Listing Service records. They now live in San Clemente.
LaTendresse’s 35-year career got its start even before he was old enough to become a volunteer as a fire explorer with the Redondo Beach Fire Department, the statement says.
“His passion for the fire service and protecting the community is exceptional,” Pietig says in his statement. “We very much appreciate the service and dedication Chief LaTendresse has provided to the community.”