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Saturday, July 1, 2006 | Tired and frustrated with the city of San Diego’s inability to properly fund its fire service, Jeff Bowman stepped down as fire chief this month. In four years, Bowman led the city through its most devastating fire in modern history, but he said the headaches of the daily grind got to him, so he retired.
Replacing him is Tracy Jarman, formerly Bowman’s top lieutenant. Raised in Escondido and currently a resident of Del Mar Heights, the lifelong San Diegan becomes the city’s first female fire chief.
She spoke with voiceofsandiego.org about leading a fire department that is overwhelmingly male, underfunded and very, very busy this holiday weekend.
You’re the first female chief of a traditionally male organization – the Fire Department.
I was promoted for my experience and my accomplishments. I think the only thing that might be different is that I’ve obviously been a role model and a mentor. I’ve had a lot of young women and women firefighters across the nation recognize that fact and actually get pretty energized about being a firefighter or being promoted up the ladder.
Since you started with the San Diego fire service two decades years ago, how did you observe women’s integration into the department?
Fortunately, the city of San Diego values diversity. I think we’ve done a very good job of bringing qualified women, a few at a time, in each academy. Women have come on gradually over time, which is actually better because you have different groups being promoted at different times.
At this point in time, we’ve had women come all the way through the ranks: We have women as battalion chiefs, captains, engineers, paramedics.
There are women that promoted up before I did. Monica Orton was a deputy chief before I climbed up. So I have role models as well.
You’re taking over the department at a time of fiscal distress with the city. Uncertainty hangs over the employee pension system, workers have agreed to salary freezes, and the management of the city has been harshly criticized over the past few years. Do you sense a morale problem within the rank-and-file? If so, how do you improve it?
Right now we’re focusing on the positives. We opened the [Pacific Beach] lifeguard tower and my promotion to fire chief has been real positive. That’s some of the first positive news that we’ve had in a while and I think it’s been really good for morale.
Obviously, if we continue to have a freeze on benefits and wages, it’s going to be a challenge. Prices continue to go up, fuel costs more. I know [Mayor Jerry Sanders] is going to do a salary and flex benefits study, so we’ll just have to see how it goes. I’ve asked everybody to be patient. We’ll work through the issues to give us a chance to be as efficient and effective as possible. I’m sure we’ll work through the situation.
Do you think the city is safer, in terms of fire protection, than it was at the time of the 2003 Cedar Fire?
I do, and I’ll tell you why: the helicopter program. With that helicopter dedicated to the city of San Diego, it won’t be up north or east or west, it’ll be here to service the city of San Diego. It really acts as a force multiplier. The helicopter is like having five additional engines out there because it can get into places that are difficult to access, get to the fire early, and try to contain it to give our crews a chance to be brought in and lay the lines by hand.
It really gives us that step, that edge, to make it an effective fire attack.
That said, you still have deficiencies in personnel, stations, and communications equipment. How do you see those problems being reconciled during your tenure?
For starters, since the Cedar Fire, we added the Santaluz fire station (in North City) and we did add the temporary station down in Mission Valley. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start. It’s going to be incremental, we’re not going to climb out of it overnight. To me, that’s a positive step forward.
[The City Council] just approved the facilities financing plan for Pacific Highlands Ranch, so we’re working on a groundbreaking for a station up there. That’s my next area of concern – the Carmel Valley area. As the growth has happened, we need to get a station built.
I think we’ll continue to add stations, but it won’t be nearly at the pace that everybody would like to see. We’re going to do the best we can, given the circumstances.
Development impact fees and … bonds will be able to fund the construction of stations. For communications system upgrades and the addition of personnel, those expenses are more reliant on how much cash is available for the city.
Let’s talk about communications first. The City Council did approve an upgrade, which should give us five to seven years on our existing system. It’s a $50 million upgrade, which was sorely needed. We were basically on (IBM) 286 computers at our dispatch center, which is unheard of. That step is actually going to be implemented July 1, so I’m optimistic that the 800 megahertz and the VHF systems will be fine.
The bigger challenge is staffing. Again, it’s incremental. We may only be able to open a station with one engine company and have to revisit that several years down the road to add a second company. At least it’s a start for help in the coverage issue.
Your first big project as chief will be this weekend. Fourth of July weekend will attract throngs of beachgoers that will keep your lifeguards busy. What do you have planned for keeping these beaches and bays safe?
I’m excited about the plan we have in place. We’ve done a lot of preparation. We have Emergency Medical Services teams with a paramedic that can often get through the crowds better than we can. We’ve got the helicopter staffed and ready to go if we need to drop somebody in if we need to. We’re placing another engine company inside the areas where we may have trouble getting inside the area. And we’re setting up our command post, working closely with the Police Department.
I’d just ask everybody out there to be safe. Remember that fireworks are illegal, watch out for your fire pits, and be as safe as you can be.
Will you be able to enjoy your first Fourth of July at the helm?
I will. I have a few things I need to do first. I’m in a parade up in Scripps Ranch. I’ll check in on the command post, check in on the lifeguards and make sure everything is in place all the way through the weekend. But eventually I’ll be able to get to my barbecue too.
– Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN