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February 27, 2007 > Milpitas Fire Chief Clare Frank

Milpitas Fire Chief Clare Frank

By Steve Warga

TCV: How have your gender and youth impacted your career?

Frank: Whether you're looking at age or gender or pony tail and freckles, I'm definitely not the sort of face people might expect to see in the Chief's position; that's for sure. I may be a little young, but I think in the Milpitas Department most of the chiefs have come into office in their forties. I was 39 when I was hired here in August, 2005, so I'm pretty close to our average age.

TCV: And then there's gender, do you have any statistics regarding female chiefs?

Frank: When I first looked at this job, I stumbled across some statistics. I believe there were seven female chiefs in California. Seems to me three of them are in Northern California.

It isn't something I think about much. I don't put any emphasis on my age or gender. It is what it is and I can't change that fact.

TCV: Did you set out to become a fire chief?

Frank: Absolutely not! It's a rare fire chief these days who does. Actually, back in high school I wanted to be an architect. I had really good penmanship! I went to Harbor High School in Santa Cruz where my plan was to become an architect and play college basketball.

TCV: From architect to fighting fires, that's quite a leap; how did it happen?

Frank: I needed a summer job and my older brother had been with Cal Fire [California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection] for a couple of years and he said I would love the work.

Back then you had to go to a community college State Fire Training Academy where the top three candidates were offered jobs. I finished first in my class and had a job for the summer. After my second or third fire - columns we call them - I was hooked. It sounds kind of hokey to say, but it's a calling to me. You get addicted to the challenge and the adrenaline rush. I guess it was in my blood and I didn't know this until getting out in the wild lands to fight those fires.

My dad was a top gun fighter pilot, but he got out of the military before he married my mom. He was an interesting man, very bright. He tried his hand at numerous professions. He was a monk too, which is quite a swing from piloting fighter planes!

TCV: Being chief means taking on more administrative duties, does your enthusiasm for fire fighting remain?

Frank: It does, yes it does; I love the profession. I researched Milpitas before applying for the job and I liked what I found. I really have a lot of respect for this community and I like working here. It does pose challenges, but I've never run away from a challenge. I admire this community's policy directions and commitment, so I'm very happy to be here.

TCV: Where did you work before coming to Milpitas?

Frank: Well, I was with Cal Fire until I suffered an on-the-job injury that kept me off the line for five years. After the injury I went to law school full-time to finish the degree I had been working toward in the evenings.

I was fortunate to have an offer from an excellent law firm, so I went to work for them after passing the bar. (TCV note: Frank graduated from Santa Clara University of Law at the top of her class and is an active member of the California Bar.) I practiced labor and employment law which has helped me every day in my work here.

I enjoyed practicing law, but when 9-11 hit, I felt a strong pull to get back to the line of duty. I went to my doctor and asked if my feet were sufficiently healed. He said they looked just fine to him. So I went to Cogswell Polytechnic, and completed my bachelor degree in firefighting and returned to Cal Fire as a deputy marshal.

Like I said, this firefighting thing is in my blood!

TCV: What are your biggest challenges today in Milpitas?

Frank: There are a couple of them. One is the challenge of responding to high-density, urban developments. That's new for Milpitas, which was comprised for many years of mostly single-story, homes. So, we're ushering in the change in techniques needed to fight fires in multi-story developments.

This concept, called 'smart growth,' puts high density housing right next to industrial facilities and that presents new challenges to the department. As fire fighters, we might say, 'How could they build this?' Well, it's not up to us; we just have to learn how to respond to emergencies in those developments.

The other big challenge relates to the newness of this city. Newer structures must conform to stricter fire prevention codes requiring sprinklers, for example. So I have a generation of rookie fire fighters who never had the experiences of responding to major disasters. Yet the potential is there for something like an industrial emergency and we have to train and prepare for that sort of thing.

TCV: Any final words of wisdom for our readers?

Frank: Oh, that's easy! Smoke detectors and sprinklers save lives.

Let me add that I'm proud of my department; I'm proud of my staff; and I'm proud to serve the City of Milpitas.

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