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August 24, 2010 > Special Life Events: Carlos Rodriguez

Special Life Events: Carlos Rodriguez

By Simon Wong

Photo courtesy of Carlos Rodriguez

Union City Fire Chief Carlos Rodriguez retired on August 13, 2010, following the merger of Union City Fire Department (UCFD) with Alameda County Fire Department (ACFD) on July 1, 2010.

Born in San Jose, Costa Rica, 57-year old Rodriguez has three sisters. His mother wanted better opportunities for her children and made the difficult decision to send him to live with her sister in Los Angeles when he was six years old. He recalls being put on a propeller-driven Pan Am aircraft.

His aunt, uncle and two cousins lived in the predominantly African-American Watts neighborhood of South Central LA where life in the early 1960s was "not a walk in the park." As a mixed-race child, he was not readily accepted by the locals and vividly remembers having to fight his way to and from school, learning quickly how to fend for himself.

He understood he would have to pay his mother and sisters' passage to the United States to reunite with them. He sold newspapers before and after school, selling the New York Times on weekends outside the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills and cleaned a fried chicken establishment in the late evenings. The Beverly Hilton was the most lucrative pitch with generous tips from stars such as Johnny Carson, Gregory Peck, Dean Martin, et. al. Rodriguez achieved his goal.

The family moved into subsidized Project Housing and his mother worked as a seamstress in a downtown LA "sweatshop" on Pico Boulevard, earning $28 a week. He continued to help by working several jobs and for his uncle in the summer with his cabinet business projects.

By his own admission, as he grew older, he became a tough, angry street kid and associated with members of the Black Panthers and Black Muslim affiliations.

His high school counselor laughed Rodriguez out of the room when he sought advice on becoming a physician and cardiologist, informing him he would never amount to anything and either be dead or in jail by age 17. That was the turning point. He set out to prove him wrong.

In 1970, aged 17, Rodriguez dropped out of high school and joined the US Marines to qualify for the GI Bill and gain access to educational opportunities. He served with pride during the Viet Nam era, training in San Diego, Camp Pendleton (Oceanside, CA) and attended Airborne School with a detachment of the 101st Airborne Division in Camp Khui, Okinawa. He underwent Jungle Environmental Training in the Philippines with the Negrito Tribe which taught him to survive using whatever the immediate natural environment offered.

"At the time, I was a kid who thought he had the answer to everything. The experience taught me we're not above anything else on Earth."

He earned his High School Diploma while serving in the Marines and, later, a Bachelors Degree in Fire Administration, a Masters Degree in Organizational Management and a Certificate from Harvard/MIT in Labor Relations.

After the military, he decided to become involved with public safety. It was neither something with which he had grown up nor had it been a yearning ambition; after all, he had wanted to be a doctor. He was a Los Angeles County paramedic from 1973 to 1976 and became one of 4,800 applicants, who filled Hollywood High School, for far fewer positions with the fire service. At the time, 20 extra points were awarded to ex-military personnel. He scored 118 percent in his tests and placed 48th. Civilians stood little chance of selection.

When Rodriguez entered the fire service, most personnel were World War II or Korean War veterans who instilled principles and virtues, such as "service above self" and "duty," in the younger men. It was not about the individual, the benefits or pension. Rodriguez owes them his sense of public duty and the need to always do the right thing for the greater good.

In 1976, he joined Redwood City Fire Department. By 1994, he had become the Training Officer. He enjoyed training, attending emergencies and assisting people and had participated in the 1975 Guatemala Earthquake relief effort. Later, he assisted in Katrina, Loma Prieta and other disaster/emergency situations. He has always sought opportunities to make a difference. He wanted to do more, set an example for others but wondered who would want a "ghetto kid." His unwavering support of and involvement with the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is born of his disaster-relief experience.

Rodriguez found his "first position as a fire chief in a garbage can." One evening in 1994, he left his office and noticed the Fire Chief's wastepaper basket had not been emptied. He took it to the dumpster but a piece of paper remained lodged in the bottom. He saw it was the advertised vacancy for Fire Chief, City of Hollister. The paper was refuse. He applied for the position successfully and, sixth months after his appointment, became Director of Public Safety with responsibility for the Police Department, too.

In 1998, he was appointed Fire Chief & Airport Director for the City of Visalia and in 2002, County Fire Chief & Emergency Manager for Teton County, Wyoming, before becoming Union City Fire Chief in 2006.

"It's been very interesting. There are the politics of the job, labor issues, union issues and what union members believe is right. Despite the popular vote, one must listen carefully to everything, consider the facts and always ensure staff's safety and service to the community. I take my oath of office very seriously. I think I've done the best job I could," Rodriguez reflected.

"In retrospect, I wish I'd remained in Hollister. That was my happiest time in the fire service, working with the most wonderful people. I was a new fire chief, tempted by bigger opportunities and moved for the wrong reasons. As an adventurer, I accepted the Teton County job which entailed the merger of four fire departments and paramedic services. Besides the logistical challenge, how do you inform fire chiefs they will no longer be fire chiefs, training chiefs they cease to be training chiefs... and preserve their dignity? This is what I do well and the merger proved successful," he recalls.

However, Wyoming proved too cold. Rodriguez attended a fire at which the dew from the water directed at the fire formed icicles on his moustache half of which he lost when he reached up to remove them. On completing his work in Wyoming, he wanted to return home to California, preferring to remain in the Bay Area despite opportunities in southern California.

In 2006, Gerald Simon (now Oakland Fire Chief) was Union City's interim Fire Chief. He knew of Rodriguez's illustrious reputation and encouraged him to consider applying for the permanent position. At the time, there were serious labor-management issues and a great deal of mistrust.

Rodriguez readily admits Union City Fire Department was a difficult place to work because of the established relationships, bureaucracy, assumptions and human issues. He acknowledges the tremendous support of the City Manager and heads-of-department group and will miss them as colleagues.

"I pursued a merger from the day I arrived. I knew it was the right thing. Unfortunately, there was a battle. ACFD will serve Union City well. In the future, you'll see fewer small fire departments and larger fire organizations. You don't need three, four or five fire chiefs. The right thing has happened. That's how you save money," Rodriguez explained.

"What I attempted to do, and I think I did it well, was avoid the lay-off of any of the firefighters during the merger process. Frontline personnel remain in post so every citizen will still see that 'red truck' in front of their house. There were some very painful cuts at the top. There are two things a fire chief never wants to do - one is to give a family member a folded American Flag because someone died in the line of duty; the second, to tell a member of staff he/she no longer has a job. Unfortunately, that happened and it also happened to me. ACFD didn't have enough funding; I had an option and decided to move on," he added.

Although there was resistance to the merger of UCFD with ACFD, when it was proposed publicly, the required preparation was already in place to smooth the way.

"Fire services in Union City and Newark are so alike. Newark Fire Chief Demetrius Schaffer and I met for almost three years. We considered ways to minimize cost, improve service and better serve our citizens by combining different parts of our departments over a period of time. A 'functional merger' would streamline administration to deliver one fire chief, one fire marshal, one training chief, three battalion chiefs instead of duplicate sets of staff. The savings could fund an additional crew to serve both cities. These were delicate matters, given that UCFD had merged with Fremont Fire Department in July 1994 and was re-established only in July 2000, so I'd never have thought people would agree to transfer to ACFD.

"Timing is important. We commissioned a Standards of Cover study which showed both cities needed to do something, soon. Merging our fire departments would have saved money for Union City but not for Newark. That's when Chief Schaffer and I spoke with Alameda County Fire Chief Sheldon Gilbert and he became part of the process. Newark saved money by contracting with Alameda County for fire services; Union City did not. Money is one thing but the safety of my crews and the service we provide to the community don't have a price.

"We had pared budgets to the extent that I was fire chief, emergency manager, fire marshal, the hazardous materials person and inspector. Further cuts would have meant losing response personnel. I couldn't let that happen and struggled with the impact of such a decision, viz. other city departments must absorb the city's overall budget deficit following UCFD's transfer to ACFD. Union City Police Department is likely to bear the brunt. Some firefighters still think I opposed this merger. People are not equally informed or do not understand the issues. I can't change that but know I did the right thing. They restored the administrative staff, fire marshal services, emergency management... and will provide much more than I could've done without the necessary funding and personnel. This serves everyone well," Rodriguez stated.

He is philosophical. Just like any other person, he has his experiences, hopes, successes and failures and has been true to the values he has learned. He has never forgotten his upbringing and is appreciative of having been entrusted with the responsibilities of a fire chief. His 37-year public-safety career has been thoroughly rewarding; he has done and seen much that cannot be taken away and the majority will never experience. His high school counselor's prophecy proved empty.

"I'll continue to encourage young men and women to join the fire service and to mentor them. Every firefighter should give back and create a legacy. To only take is not right. There are still young people who want to serve for the right reasons," Rodriguez concluded.

For more information about local fire services visit www.acgov.org/fire (Alameda County FD), www.fremont.gov (Fremont FD), www.hayward-ca.gov (Hayward FD) and www.ci.milpitas.ca.gov (Milpitas FD).

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