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May 17, 2005 > Mike Preston retires as Newark Fire Chief

Mike Preston retires as Newark Fire Chief

The City of Newark has announced the appointment of Demetrious N. Shaffer as Fire Chief. He will officially begin his new duties on Wednesday, May 18. Outgoing Fire Chief Mike Preston has served with the Newark Fire Department for 31 years. TCV asked Chief Preston about his firefighting career.

TCV: Chief Preston, have you always served with the Newark Fire Department?

Preston: Yes, I started with Newark in 1974.

TCV: What significant changes have you seen during your service in Newark?

Preston: The transition to the type of services we deliver. When I began my service with the fire department, we put out fires and had a "resuscitator" which provided oxygen when you thought it might help someone. That was the extent of what you could do. We would splint someone if needed and hoped the ambulance got to the scene quickly to transport people to the emergency room. Now, paramedics do pretty significant, invasive treatment of patients - pretty advanced stuff - often spending a half hour treating and stabilizing a patient. We have gone from having one little box to imitating a Sherpa to bring in all the equipment we need.

TCV: Do all fire trucks carry this sophisticated equipment?

Preston: All of them. All response vehicles - there are always 4 in service - have a paramedic and same compliment of medical equipment. They can all do the same job.

TCV: Has the type of person in the fire department changed too?

Preston: Yes, in a couple of ways. The dominant firefighter when I was hired came from the trades. They had been carpenters, plasterers or someone who had a strong skill set in the trades without a lot of academic background. Now I hire a lot of guys with Bachelors Degrees. Not only is it important to get into higher management, but there are a lot of analytic things you need to do at three in the morning - on the street with chemicals, drug dose, medical issues, etc. That is a real swing from trade orientation to those going through college, deciding to get into fire service and those deciding to get a Bachelors Degree while in the fire service. There is a lot more education in the fire service and it requires more. A lot of fire chiefs have Masters Degrees.

TCV: Have firefighters evolved to problem solving?

Preston: In the past we would go to a building that was burning or vehicles that had banged into each other or to someone who was not breathing. Now, we may go into a complex structure with hazardous materials which requires the skills of a chemist, nurse, and structural engineer - a broad spectrum. When things go wrong, people call the fire department. In our complex society, a lot more things can go wrong so we are called to a wide variety of incidents.

TCV: The fire service appears to be team oriented.

Preston: Yes. We function in teams for safety reasons. We live in a team environment since that is the most practical way to organize. Team members need to rely on each other and interchange job functions. In the '70's we went into a burning building with a hose, but now if you did that you would be cited by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). OSHA requires that we operate in teams of at least two. We train in Standard Operating Procedures so all firefighters work the same way - organizing the rigging, putting up a ladder, where to spot a vehicle, dealing with a patient in cardiac arrest - and all team members can efficiently contribute to the outcome.

TCV: Do you train with other fire departments in the area?

Preston: Yes. We collaborate with the Union City Fire Department. There are times when we have Newark folks in a class and we may have a Union City engine company in Newark responding to emergencies. We will then do the same for them.

On a larger scale, this summer we have a big wildland training exercise that includes many Bay Area emergency services - at Camp Parks in Dublin. We practice working in large groups and refining skills needed in a wildland-urban interface. The fire season will upon us soon. Although we typically don't see this type of fire in Newark, we are part of the statewide mutual aid system. When there is a fire in a wildland area it can quickly overcome local resources and a call goes out for mutual aid. California can move fire engines faster than anywhere else in the country.

TCV: What happens when an engine is sent to another area? Is Newark then short of firefighting resources?

Preston: No, we have two reserve fire engines. When that situation occurs, we immediately call off-duty personnel and bring them in so the community does not see the difference. Most incidents become a state disaster and we are reimbursed for our time, so the net result is a wash of costs.

TCV: Was there a big shift in training following September 11th?

Preston: No. I think there was a shift in awareness of the range of resources needed. We had already discussed the threat of terrorism, looking at ways to prepare, protective measures and collaborative ways to handle larger events in our communities. 9-11 moved federal money to first responders to get better prepared. In this area, there has been a county-wide priority to setting priorities and spending that money.

TCV: On a completely different subject, why are some Newark fire engines painted lime green?

Preston: At one time or another, we all [think we] know the right color. In Newark, we used to have red fire engines but in the '70's some studies showed that some other colors were much more visible so some engines were painted yellow or lime green. Now that there are all sorts of reflective devices, it doesn't matter what color is used. Fire departments try to be progressive when dealing with risk but are more traditional in terms of culture, gravitating toward tradition, so we are moving to red. We have ordered a new engine which should be here in about six months and it will be red. As we replace our fleet, the engines will be red.

TCV: How do the engine companies deal with drivers who are unaware of what to do when an emergency vehicle approaches?

Preston: About a third of the drivers know what to do, a third go into confusion and a third are listening to music (and cell phones). There are a lot of people who live here but grew up in other countries where moving over in response to a siren is not standard procedure. We are more cautious now and usually stop when approaching an intersection. Newark has equipment that helps first responders. Signal preemption allows a fire engine to emit a signal as it approaches an intersection causing the signal to turn green. This helps people to drive forward and get out of your way. When we use red lights and a siren, we are requesting the right of way; we don't always have it.

TCV: How does the department handle train delays?

Preston: Newark is divided into three sections with a firehouse in section. When an engine company is blocked by a train, they immediately call our dispatcher who then dispatches an engine on the other side of the tracks. There is some delay, but not much.

TCV: As you retire, what accomplishments and feelings do you take with you?

Preston: A lot of satisfaction that I was able to spend 31 years in an honorable profession that helps people. Our priority is to help people in our community. When they call us, they have a problem. I also have helped others to be successful. There is a lot of talent in this organization, so I take a lot of pride in that. The department is outstanding and the community is well served. We have a good ISO rating (an insurance rating), a great paramedic program and sprinklers in houses, including single family dwellings, so the fire problem will not expand in our community.

It is difficult for today's firefighters to maintain the high level of competency in so many disciplines. The challenge is training, equipping and setting priorities. There is lot more to do today than 30 years ago.

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