Geo Blackshire, a 21-year veteran of the Palo Alto Fire Department, has taken over as fire chief on an interim basis while the city considers a permanent replacement for Eric Nickel, who departed this month for Santa Barbara.
Blackshire, a former middle-school teacher who joined the city in 1997, has spent nearly seven years as one of the department's top logistics specialists. He has served as deputy chief of operations for seven years, which gave him direct oversight over 74 positions, including three battalion chiefs, 21 fire captains, 26 fire apparatus operators and 34 firefighters, according to the department's organization chart.
Blackshire is also credentialed as a chief fire officer through the Commission of Professional Credentialing.
The city has not yet determined its process for appointing a permanent chief, according to Claudia Keith, the city's chief communications officer.
Blackshire is taking charge of a department after a year filled with dramatic change and notable achievements. One of Nickel's major initiatives was the implementation in 2017 of a "cross-staffing" model, which relies on a three-person crew to handle different emergency vehicles. The model allowed the department to cut 11 positions and save $1.5 million in annual costs, though it also drew rebukes from local firefighters.
The department had also sent crews last summer to respond to several major wildfires, including the Cranston Fire in Riverside County and the Mendocino Complex Fire. It had signed a new long-term contract to provide fire services to Stanford University and achieved accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, a process that took five years to accomplish.
When asked about the biggest challenge the department is facing, Blackshire noted that the agency has a standard of responding to emergency incidents in eight minutes or less 90 percent of the time.
"As our call volume increases, and City traffic increases, continuing to meet or exceed our standard becomes more challenging," Blackshire said in an email.
The challenge, he added, also gives the department an opportunity to find "innovative ways to find solutions."
Blackshire also cited the challenge of recruiting a diverse pool of candidates.
"As firefighters leave the department, we have to invest time and resources toward recruitment, as well as succession planning for positions that are vacant," Blackshire said.
The goals of recruitment and succession planning, he said, are already included in the department's recently completed strategic plan, which looks at the period between 2019 and 2024. He said that it would also like the focus on the firefighter wellness program to ensure available resources to reduce firefighter injuries and support mental wellness. He also wants to ensure the department continues to conduct outreach to "educate the public on risk reduction solutions related to fire and medical emergency."
"Developing new public relations service programs is an initiative that includes all Palo Alto Fire personnel and I look forward to the collaboration," Blackshire said.