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Tracy Jarman appeared in the City Council chambers Monday as San Diego’s most recently retired employee. She watched the council approve the nomination of Javier Mainar to replace her as fire chief for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
Jarman was San Diego’s fire chief for about three and a half years, replacing Jeff Bowman, who has become a frequent critic of the region’s fire protection capabilities. I interviewed Jarman by phone on Friday — three days before Mainar’s confirmation — about why she left, what she’s most proud of and most disappointed about, and what’s facing the next fire chief.
We reported some of the financial benefits related to your retirement back in June. Did any other significant factors play into that decision?
Well, definitely. There’s a lot that goes into making that final decision, especially in a career that I’ve loved as much as the one I’ve loved with the fire service. Some of it was personal, family situations, family health situations have escalated. You mention the financial changes; that was another factor.
I felt I had done a good job and gotten us through some really tough financial times, and now we’re faced with the ongoing national or worldwide economic challenges. That challenge is going to continue for some time. I knew I had good people in positions to move up the ladder, hopefully within the Fire Department. I think you have to watch the timing of their careers as well to make sure they’re well-positioned.
Did the region’s level of funding toward fire protection — and a general reluctance to increase that recently — have any effect on your decision?
I don’t think that (it) was for me. It’s frustrating, but it wasn’t one of the factors that played in my personal decision. As we go through this economic challenge that lies ahead, it’s going to be more evident that the fire service is going to be challenged in this region because we’re already short to start with. The potential impacts that are coming down the road, additionally, are only going to exacerbate the problem.
Having been involved in the region and seen the different consolidations that are going on, that [activity is] only one part of the puzzle. There’s eventually going to have to be additional revenue streams that increase the number of resources in our entire region.
Is there anything you hoped to accomplish before your retirement that you didn’t get to? Maybe you hoped the 2008 proposition to increase funding toward fire protection turned out differently.
First off, I appreciated the effort that went into the proposition and giving voters a chance to voice their opinion on the fire service issue. Obviously I wished it would have passed. That’s one thing that if I left here disappointed at all, it would be that we weren’t able to successfully increase revenue to help address the fire issue in this region. It’s not just a city of San Diego issue. It’s a regional issue. So I say that would be one disappointment.
On the other hand, we’ve done a lot of great things. The second helicopter’s good; additional fire stations, we improved the reserve fleet so we could leverage surge capacity if we get another firestorm. So, I don’t know, I tend to look at the accomplishments and I feel we’ve come a ways. It’s just that there’s still a long way to go.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on women firefighters in San Diego. It’s generally a male-dominated profession, but you’ve certainly held leadership roles. Do we see gender-related issues in the department today?
I think we don’t see as many women or minority firefighters coming through our doors. I think that’s an issue, and we actually talked about it just a couple weeks ago, and they’re talking about it at the national level and why that might be. I think that’s something the fire service will continue to struggle with a bit, to make sure diversity comes through the door.
I think having been in a leadership position as fire chief, and there are other women in leadership positions as fire chief, we’ve shown that women belong in the fire service. We can do a great professional job here and we can be recognized for what we bring to the table — our skills, our knowledge, our abilities. It’s been fun and it’s been great to be a role model and be out there in the community.
Other former San Diego fire chiefs have moved on to other careers in the area. Do you have any plans at this point as you leave the city’s employment?
I’ve had a lot of people approach me on that issue and I’m not quite ready. I’d like six months to get my feet on the ground and handle a few of the home issues that I’ve got and see where I’m at. I’m sure those doors will be open.
What have you been doing in the last week or month to help prepare for the transition to a new fire chief?
I think I’ve been doing that all along. I’ve been preparing my people to step up and attend meetings. I’ve been positioning (them) to attend when I can’t make it so that it will be a seamless transition. Even in the region, we’ve got regional technology projects that are going on and I’ve been slowly transitioning people into those roles. I think you’ll find that it’s a very smooth transition for our department.
You’ve publicly endorsed Javier Mainer to replace you in the department. What do you think will be his greatest challenges?
We’re fortunate that somebody of his caliber is willing to step up in such tough economic times. His biggest challenge will be the fiscal challenge that the city is facing. Obviously with a $179 million gap, there’s going to be an impact to public safety.
We’ve talked a lot about the regional issues. Any financial impact to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department is going to have an impact on the region. We talked about surge capacity and the resources we have for strike teams. If we actually have to close companies, reduce staffing levels — that will have a ripple effect within the entire region. A lot of our mutual aid neighbors rely heavily upon us to assist when they have incidents. It’s not just going to be a city issue.
Is there any advice you would give Javier Mainer as the city faces the budget shortfall?
Do data driven decision-making and lay out the facts. Lay out the facts for the mayor and the council so they know what the options are and citizens can hear the real impact of those decisions. That’s really the role of the fire chief — to provide the information and provide our best professional opinion. And if people have decided this is what we’re going to do, we find the best way to implement it and minimalize the impact to service.
What areas of the department’s budget do you think could be cut? Are we talking more about personnel or more about equipment?
We’re so lean already that (with) any additional cuts, it’s going to be more of personnel and reduction of service. I don’t want to second guess what decisions might be made — it’s too early in the process — but having been part of the budget at this level for probably the last seven or eight years, this is a lean department. It’s challenged already so it will be significant cuts. The only place to take them is from service reduction.