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.