Palo Alto's rapidly changing Fire Department now has a new leader.
City Manager James Keene announced Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 9, that the city has selected Eric Nickel, currently a deputy chief in the Novato Fire District, to serve as the new fire chief, a position that has been vacant since June 2010, when Nick Marinaro retired.
Ever since Marinaro's retirement, Public Safety Director Dennis Burns has been serving as both the police and fire chief. While Burns will remain at the helm of the two increasingly integrated departments, he will now have a new high-level official to assist him in running the city's fire department.
In a statement, Burns said the city is "excited" to have Nickel join the Fire Department and "lead the outstanding men and women of the PAFD on a number of exciting initiatives on behalf of the Palo Alto/Stanford community."
"I look forward to working with such an energetic, enthusiastic and dedicated public-safety professional," Burns said.
Nickel, who is set to begin his new job on Nov. 13, was selected after a nationwide search that yielded 37 applications and seven preliminary interviews, Keene said. Ultimately, three candidates were invited for more extensive interviews with key stakeholder groups consisting of senior managers, public-safety officials and community leaders.
As deputy chief in Novato, Nickel managed a team of 88 fire professionals and oversaw a budget of $29 million. His responsibilities included oversight for the ambulance system, fire prevention, budget, human resources, labor management and community engagement, according to the city's announcement. Before rising to deputy chief, Nickel had spent four years as a battalion chief and four years as fire captain. Before that, he had served as a firefighter and paramedic for 10 years.
In Palo Alto, Nickel will be inheriting an operation with a $26.6 million budget and 117 full-time positions. In addition to personnel changes at the top, the department has been undergoing other major changes, many of which stem from recommendations issued by recent consultant reports. The city has recently abolished the longstanding minimum-staffing provision in its contract with the firefighters union, a move that gives the administration more flexibility with personnel.
At the same time, the city is looking to expand its well-used ambulance operations and to use one of the fire engines at its centrally located Hanover station as a backup engine to support other stations in the city.
The city's effort to shift resources from firefighting to medical response follows a recent report by the consulting firms TriData and the ICMA Center for Public Safety Excellence, which noted that the total number of emergency medical incidents in Palo Alto went up from 2,742 in 2000 to 4,070 in 2009, a 48 percent increase.
In a statement, Keene lauded Nickel's "more than 25 years of experience in strategic planning and mentoring future leaders, as well as collaborating with the community."
"These skills are essential as we continue to move forward to build a sustainable model of fire service for the future," Keene said.
In addition to his duties at the Novato Fire District, Nickel currently serves as a director on the board of the Chamber of Commerce Leadership Novato Program and the Novato Human Needs Center. Nickel called it "an honor to be selected as the City of Palo Alto's next Fire Chief." He will receive an annual salary of $184,830.
"My passion is community leadership and organizational excellence. It is exciting to be part of an extraordinary community with innovative, educated and passionate advocates," Nickel said in a statement. "I am eager to lead the dedicated, talented and professional men and women of the Fire Department to engage the community and generate shared solutions to make life safer."