News

Fire Chief Eric Nickel to step down in January

Veteran firefighter accepts job in Santa Barbara

After six years on the job, Palo Alto Fire Chief Eric Nickel plans to step down from his position in January to take the helm at the Santa Barbara Fire Department, City Manager James Keene announced Tuesday.

Nickel, who was hired as fire chief in October 2012, will leave on the heels of several notable accomplishments. He was at the forefront of the city's contentious negotiations with Stanford University over a new fire-service contract, which concluded in August with a new five-year contract. The same month, the Fire Department became one of only 10 fire agencies out of 874 in the state to receive accreditation from the Commission of Fire Accreditation International, a process that included numerous peer reviews and expert validation.

Nickel also led the recent efforts to ramp up medical services by adding a fourth ambulance and to institute a cross-staffing model in which a third-person crew is charged with staffing different emergency vehicles, depending on the call. The move, which made possible the elimination of 11 positions in the Fire Department in 2017, faced some criticism from the firefighters union.

Nickel's impending departure adds to the city's growing list of vacancies at the highest echelon of City Hall. The city is still without a permanent planning director, chief transportation official, development services director and chief financial officer. It may also be without a permanent Utilities general manager next year, when Ed Shikada, who currently serves in that role, replaces Keene as city manager.

In a statement, Keene cited a range of factors for the staff departures, including a competitive job market and the Bay Area's exceptionally low unemployment rate. He also pointed to the retirement of baby boomers and the general shortage of senior-level executives available for key positions in local government.

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"All around us in the Bay Area and in California as a whole, cities and other public agencies are finding it exceptionally challenging to recruit for senior leadership positions," Keene said. "It's not a surprise that our employees, who are the top in their fields, continue to be sought after by other cities and employers."

Nickel told the Weekly that when he was hired six years ago, he and Keene had set out a series of goals for the department to accomplish.

"With key PAFD leaders in place, accreditation, a new strategic plan, and completion of the Stanford contract, I felt complete and the time was right to make a move," Nickel said.

He also said that with his youngest child recently heading off to college, he and his wife have been contemplating their 'empty nest' move and are "thrilled to be moving to a beautiful part of the California Coast where we can afford to live in the town where we work."

Keene said Nickel's last day with the city will be Jan. 11. He lauded Nickel for his work to "transform the Fire Department into an innovative, efficient and data-driven organization."

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"The department has evolved to focus on the increasing paramedic needs of the community," Keene said. "Eric also got the renegotiated Stanford Fire contract over the finish line and this year, accomplished the accreditation of the department. These are all exceptionally noteworthy achievements."

Watch a 2015 episode of "Behind the Headlines" where Nickel sat down with Weekly journalists to discuss changes in the Fire Department.

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Fire Chief Eric Nickel to step down in January

Veteran firefighter accepts job in Santa Barbara

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Nov 20, 2018, 12:52 pm

After six years on the job, Palo Alto Fire Chief Eric Nickel plans to step down from his position in January to take the helm at the Santa Barbara Fire Department, City Manager James Keene announced Tuesday.

Nickel, who was hired as fire chief in October 2012, will leave on the heels of several notable accomplishments. He was at the forefront of the city's contentious negotiations with Stanford University over a new fire-service contract, which concluded in August with a new five-year contract. The same month, the Fire Department became one of only 10 fire agencies out of 874 in the state to receive accreditation from the Commission of Fire Accreditation International, a process that included numerous peer reviews and expert validation.

Nickel also led the recent efforts to ramp up medical services by adding a fourth ambulance and to institute a cross-staffing model in which a third-person crew is charged with staffing different emergency vehicles, depending on the call. The move, which made possible the elimination of 11 positions in the Fire Department in 2017, faced some criticism from the firefighters union.

Nickel's impending departure adds to the city's growing list of vacancies at the highest echelon of City Hall. The city is still without a permanent planning director, chief transportation official, development services director and chief financial officer. It may also be without a permanent Utilities general manager next year, when Ed Shikada, who currently serves in that role, replaces Keene as city manager.

In a statement, Keene cited a range of factors for the staff departures, including a competitive job market and the Bay Area's exceptionally low unemployment rate. He also pointed to the retirement of baby boomers and the general shortage of senior-level executives available for key positions in local government.

"All around us in the Bay Area and in California as a whole, cities and other public agencies are finding it exceptionally challenging to recruit for senior leadership positions," Keene said. "It's not a surprise that our employees, who are the top in their fields, continue to be sought after by other cities and employers."

Nickel told the Weekly that when he was hired six years ago, he and Keene had set out a series of goals for the department to accomplish.

"With key PAFD leaders in place, accreditation, a new strategic plan, and completion of the Stanford contract, I felt complete and the time was right to make a move," Nickel said.

He also said that with his youngest child recently heading off to college, he and his wife have been contemplating their 'empty nest' move and are "thrilled to be moving to a beautiful part of the California Coast where we can afford to live in the town where we work."

Keene said Nickel's last day with the city will be Jan. 11. He lauded Nickel for his work to "transform the Fire Department into an innovative, efficient and data-driven organization."

"The department has evolved to focus on the increasing paramedic needs of the community," Keene said. "Eric also got the renegotiated Stanford Fire contract over the finish line and this year, accomplished the accreditation of the department. These are all exceptionally noteworthy achievements."

Watch a 2015 episode of "Behind the Headlines" where Nickel sat down with Weekly journalists to discuss changes in the Fire Department.

Comments

Bob
College Terrace
on Nov 20, 2018 at 3:31 pm
Bob, College Terrace
on Nov 20, 2018 at 3:31 pm

Can we have a people driven fire department instead of data driven ? Was this a press release or actual reporting ?


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2018 at 5:33 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2018 at 5:33 pm

The data-driven thing is OK for all those everyday medical calls. But, we all saw what happened in Paradise, and, before that, Lake and Mendocino Counties, and before that, Sonoma County. Particularly the Tubbs Fire which destroyed Coffey Park-- not an area that anybody thought of as vulnerable to a wildfire.

The awards and certifications achieved under Chief Nickel are great-- for the everyday emergencies. But, Palo Alto is vulnerable to wildfires and needs to think through how extraordinary events like the Tubbs Fire could be better handled.


hmm....
Charleston Meadows
on Nov 20, 2018 at 7:06 pm
hmm...., Charleston Meadows
on Nov 20, 2018 at 7:06 pm

How about the CIO? Is he leaving too? The Daily post had quite a story on his travels last week. Wont be surprised if he announces his departure soon.


Resident
another community
on Nov 20, 2018 at 10:19 pm
Resident, another community
on Nov 20, 2018 at 10:19 pm

@hmm - Yes, the CIO has announced a departure date of mid-December.


hmm....
Charleston Meadows
on Nov 20, 2018 at 11:03 pm
hmm...., Charleston Meadows
on Nov 20, 2018 at 11:03 pm

@Resident, really? No mention of this in the news? Wonder which city will be willing to hire him next.....


Renter
Midtown
on Nov 21, 2018 at 12:00 pm
Renter, Midtown
on Nov 21, 2018 at 12:00 pm

I'm wondering if the cost of housing in this area has been a factor for people such as our fire chief leaving. How will Palo Alto continue to attract people to fill these positions when there is no affordable housing?


Gripping Reality
Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 21, 2018 at 1:25 pm
Gripping Reality, Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 21, 2018 at 1:25 pm

>> He lauded Nickel for his work to "transform the Fire Department into an innovative, efficient and data-driven organization."
>>> Can we have a people driven fire department instead of data driven ?

We live in a metrics-dominated era and most folks don't realize that police and fire chiefs are essentially city administrators.

The days of a tenured fireman working his way up to chief in the same fire department he was originally hired is long gone.

The department heads are 'hired guns' just like the city manager position.


Gale Johnson
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 21, 2018 at 3:15 pm
Gale Johnson, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Nov 21, 2018 at 3:15 pm

Is he really leaving for a lesser paying job in a bigger city? Begs the question, why? Is it partly housing affordability here (Santa Barbara isn't cheap from what I've read) or frustration with the job in PA, the demands we make on those employees. And the list gets bigger.


Ken Horowitz
University South
on Nov 21, 2018 at 6:12 pm
Ken Horowitz, University South
on Nov 21, 2018 at 6:12 pm

Chief Nickel is a super administrator and was able to renegotiate a successful contract with Stanford Fire. He also understands that the City's Emergency Medical Services have to adjust to the growing population of elderly in Palo Alto. He recently reported that data to our Policy and Services Committee of the City Council. He will be missed!


Pat Burt
Registered user
Community Center
on Nov 21, 2018 at 7:47 pm
Pat Burt, Community Center
Registered user
on Nov 21, 2018 at 7:47 pm

Chief Nickel will really be missed. He brought strong leadership to the department that was needed after difficult pension and benefit reforms and to implement important transformations in efficiencies and data based decisions. These contributions may seem dry, but they have been critical to the department being on a sound foundation going forward.
Fortunately, he has also developed a strong group of leaders coming up through the ranks who will continue the department's direction.
Thanks to the chief for his exceptional service.


Wayne Martin
Professorville
on Nov 21, 2018 at 7:48 pm
Wayne Martin, Professorville
on Nov 21, 2018 at 7:48 pm

It's a good thing to have Dept. Heads rotate every five-six years. Bringing in new eyes every so often allows for a rethinking of the structure and effectiveness of the organization. People staying longer in the job become ineffective over time.

Looking at the Santa Barbara web-page, their fire department is more, shall we say, interesting than Palo Alto's. Palo Alto doesn't have many structure fires--so that the bulk of the call-outs are for ambulance service, and other support roles.

As for home prices, Zillow shows that SB homes' median price at/about $1.2M, while considerably less outside the city in the country.

Would be nice if there was a nice paper trail documenting of the projects he tackled, and what the results of those efforts turned out to be.


Reality Check
University South
on Nov 24, 2018 at 4:42 pm
Reality Check, University South
on Nov 24, 2018 at 4:42 pm

Connect the dots, people (and reporters). The new city manager starts in December. Directors and managers may be leaving because they don't want to work for him. Easy to understand.


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