Palo Alto hires new fire chief | October 12, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 12, 2012

Palo Alto hires new fire chief

City selects Eric Nickel to lead its Fire Department

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's rapidly changing Fire Department now has a new leader.

City Manager James Keene announced Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 9, that the city has selected Eric Nickel, currently a deputy chief in the Novato Fire District, to serve as the new fire chief, a position that has been vacant since June 2010, when Nick Marinaro retired.

Ever since Marinaro's retirement, Public Safety Director Dennis Burns has been serving as both the police and fire chief. While Burns will remain at the helm of the two increasingly integrated departments, he will now have a new high-level official to assist him in running the city's fire department.

In a statement, Burns said the city is "excited" to have Nickel join the Fire Department and "lead the outstanding men and women of the PAFD on a number of exciting initiatives on behalf of the Palo Alto/Stanford community."

"I look forward to working with such an energetic, enthusiastic and dedicated public-safety professional," Burns said.

Nickel, who is set to begin his new job on Nov. 13, was selected after a nationwide search that yielded 37 applications and seven preliminary interviews, Keene said. Ultimately, three candidates were invited for more extensive interviews with key stakeholder groups consisting of senior managers, public-safety officials and community leaders.

As deputy chief in Novato, Nickel managed a team of 88 fire professionals and oversaw a budget of $29 million. His responsibilities included oversight for the ambulance system, fire prevention, budget, human resources, labor management and community engagement, according to the city's announcement. Before rising to deputy chief, Nickel had spent four years as a battalion chief and four years as fire captain. Before that, he had served as a firefighter and paramedic for 10 years.

In Palo Alto, Nickel will be inheriting an operation with a $26.6 million budget and 117 full-time positions. In addition to personnel changes at the top, the department has been undergoing other major changes, many of which stem from recommendations issued by recent consultant reports. The city has recently abolished the longstanding minimum-staffing provision in its contract with the firefighters union, a move that gives the administration more flexibility with personnel.

At the same time, the city is looking to expand its well-used ambulance operations and to use one of the fire engines at its centrally located Hanover station as a backup engine to support other stations in the city.

The city's effort to shift resources from firefighting to medical response follows a recent report by the consulting firms TriData and the ICMA Center for Public Safety Excellence, which noted that the total number of emergency medical incidents in Palo Alto went up from 2,742 in 2000 to 4,070 in 2009, a 48 percent increase.

In a statement, Keene lauded Nickel's "more than 25 years of experience in strategic planning and mentoring future leaders, as well as collaborating with the community."

"These skills are essential as we continue to move forward to build a sustainable model of fire service for the future," Keene said.

In addition to his duties at the Novato Fire District, Nickel currently serves as a director on the board of the Chamber of Commerce Leadership Novato Program and the Novato Human Needs Center. Nickel called it "an honor to be selected as the City of Palo Alto's next Fire Chief." He will receive an annual salary of $184,830.

"My passion is community leadership and organizational excellence. It is exciting to be part of an extraordinary community with innovative, educated and passionate advocates," Nickel said in a statement. "I am eager to lead the dedicated, talented and professional men and women of the Fire Department to engage the community and generate shared solutions to make life safer."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Dave
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Here is a little news story about the new chief: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm

The Weekly ran this article in the summer:
Web Link

that claimed that the City was revamping the Fire Department around the recognition that the FD has become nothing more than an ambulance service--which responds to very few structure fires.

Given the over 50% benefits package, we will be paying around $300K (or more) for someone to manage our Ambulance Service--which could easily be turned over to the private sector.

It's not clear that the City has actually produced a meaningful transition plan that really achieves very much. This City Manager doesn't seem to like to document as much as he likes to hire expensive managers. So, what's this new Fire Chief going to do for this $300K+?

There is a Council Election going on. Wonder if any of the candidates have any idea what's going on in the PADF?

Like this comment
Posted by Jan H.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 9, 2012 at 6:47 pm

From what I have read, the new fire chief had an over-the-top salary in Novato. Obviously, Palo Alto had to beat that figure to lure him away?

Seeing as how there is not really very much for a firefighter to do in Palo Alto, what is he going to do to earn his keep?

I know CEO's , Stanford Professors, doctors, and several Ph.D.'s who make less money than this guy did in Novato!

Like this comment
Posted by Mark
a resident of another community
on Oct 10, 2012 at 2:11 am

"Seeing as how there is not really very much for a firefighter to do in Palo Alto"

Wait did you even read the article? You know, the part about 4,070 medical calls in 2009? And those are aside from the fire alarm activations, car crashes, hazardous materials responses, people trapped in elevators (and other service calls?)

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2012 at 6:33 am

This is a step backwards. One emergency chief with authority over fire and police is a much more sensible option in these days of high technology for communication and administration. We need less chiefs and more indians. What an expensive mistake!

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 10, 2012 at 7:30 am

> the part about 4,070 medical calls in 2009?

This is Ambulance work--not something that takes a $150K/year "fire fighter" (or three or four or six) to make a ten minute drive to the Stanford Hospital.

And how many people are trapped in elevators in PA a year? Not that it couldn't happen, but really--how many people have been saved by the Fire Department in the last five years?

And the same goes for Hazardous Materials responses. Is there any reason that Mountain View/Stanford/Menlo Park (San Mateo County Fire Response District) could not put together a regional HMR Team that would save all of us a lot of money in training, as well as cost-sharing for these infrequent events.

We don't want fires in our cities--so spending more money for preventation, and better organization of the regional fire fighting resources can provide the same (or better) levels of responese, at far less cost.

Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 10, 2012 at 7:39 am

Welcome Chief Nickel. Chief Burns did a great job, but now he can focus back on PD work. NIckel brings great experience to an already outstanding fire department, can't wait to see what he does.

I think people should focus on the positive, and not speak bad about someone who is going to make this city better. Yes, there are costs associated with a new chief but a police chief can't do what a fire chief can do. Two different jobs with different training, but Burns did a great job while he managed with great departments. If you don't think so, go talk to a cop and a firefighter.

Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 10, 2012 at 7:45 am

Mr. Martin, If you don't think that the fire department is essential why don't you go ask the people who had a house fire or the car accident on El Camino last month and see what they say. Or when your family member needs medical assistance, you can have the $10 an hour "ambulance work" done on your family. I will have the trained professionals work on my family and I will be happy to pay for their services too, my family is worth the money.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 10, 2012 at 9:34 am

> I will have the trained professionals work on my family

And what makes you think that the Ambulance service provided by the Palo Alto Fire Department is "trained", whereas the Ambulance services provided by the private sector are "untrained"?

The reality of modern firefighting is that nationally we are seeing actual fire fighting comprising somewhere between 2%-4% of the call outs. Zoning codes have been slowing encorporating the installtion of sprinkler systems in all commercial buildings, and increasingly so in residential structures. It's not hard to see another generation of fire sensors, connected via the Internet, to a central dispatch that can handle several cities. The combination of early detection and localized suppression, will reduce time it takes for fire suppression to become activated, and the damage that fires do--when they occur.

On a regional level--wildfires need the attention of a regional fire response agency. No single City has the resources to deal with these problems. Mutual Aid agreements currently have created a de-facto regional fire repsonse for these sorts of fires, but more could be done to solidify the internals of such an organization.

There will always be a need for "first reponse"--but given that the costs of the current service delivery model is in the billions of dollars for areas as large as the San Francisco Bay Area, it makes sense to be agressively rethinking how we provide these services--including the disbanding of local fire departments, replacing them with more regional organizations.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 10, 2012 at 9:44 am

Wow, another overpaid bureaurcrat hired by the overpaid bureauracacy.

Open up your wallets for more taxes, no move to reduce spending here!

Like this comment
Posted by Another Manager
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2012 at 10:39 am

City Manager Keene continues to feather his nest with highly paid managers. It's called Empire Building.

Like this comment
Posted by Cindy
a resident of University South
on Oct 10, 2012 at 10:42 am

Maybe this new Fire Chief can stop the wasting of our taxpayer money. I was walking pass the High St fire station and witness not one, but two firemen washing their personal cars during the middle of the day. Why are we paying for firemen to wash their cars and use the city's water too? I also love see them shopping at Costco. Shouldn't they be shopping in the town that employs them?

Like this comment
Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 10, 2012 at 11:50 am

Wonder if he's collecting his pension from Novato and his salary from PA. Can't blame him. He's just playing the system. Gotta love those unions.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2012 at 11:57 am

Very interesting the way Jim Keene has set up how and to whom the new Fire Chief will report. Eric Nickel will report to Dennis Burns our over worked and under appreciated Police Chief.

Why has Jim Keene done this? Unfortunately, Jim Keene has exposed himself as the ultimate delegator of the work load, so he doesn't have to take responsibility for anything, and it avoids him having to work too hard. He can just continue to take home his giant pay check.

Like this comment
Posted by Jan H.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm

With all the talk and complaints about budget cuts, frozen police positions, the need for more schools, etc, can PA really afford a new fire chief at that rate of pay? It wasn't long ago at all the the PAFD firemen were in local parking lots asking for people to sign petitions to keep the City from laying them off! Yes, they need some paramedics, but there are plenty of ambulances to take medical calls. There really have not been many fires locally, nor many natural disasters since 1998.

Again, I really want to know what this new chief will do to earn his over-priced keep.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 10, 2012 at 1:04 pm

This is another example of a union bureaucrat getting rich at taxpayer expense. A fire chief should max out around $100K and be elibible for retirement pay at 67. Instead they are costing taxpayers 4-5 times what they are worth and double dipping. Voters should:
1.) Vote NO on 30 (Brown will continue to lavish raises on benefits if he is given more tax $'s. The union salaries comes comes back to him as campaign contributions)
2.) Vote YES on 32 (Stop the union's automatic reach in to employee paychecks)

Like this comment
Posted by James
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Wow, didn't know that washing you auto (while working) was part of a Palo Alto Firefighters job description.

Like this comment
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm

We had an ambulance call recently on our block.
Six fire vehicles showed up (trucks and vans).

I wonder if that counts as one call or six?

Like this comment
Posted by Gouged
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Dave: Thank you for posting the link.
I am increasingly depressed at the sight of public employees feeding off taxpayers. Almost no tax payer makes the sort of compensation that many public employees in general make - and certainly few if anyone will make the $400,000+ that this gentleman made in Novato. While I certainly dont grudge him making his money, it appears that the city has leave of all sense and reason when it comes to managing expenses.
Will it take the city becoming bankrupt before the gouging of citizens stops? There are so many reasonable posts here about combining districts to rationalize expenses but it is depressing to see that the continued run of waste at city hall.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"There are so many reasonable posts here about combining districts to rationalize expenses but it is depressing to see that the continued run of waste at city hall."

Elected and appointed officials will NEVER give up power voluntarily - they won't even put consolidation on their meeting agendas. The ONLY way we will get fire and police service consolidation is by putting that issue on the ballot - where it will win overwhelmingly.

Like this comment
Posted by Jan H.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 10, 2012 at 6:45 pm

My son, the rail fan, says Union Pacific #9999 does not exist anymore. It probably no longer rides the rails, although it is possible that it was renumbered in the 6300 series.

He also said that the description of the part sounds like something that could have been in the fan housing of a train, they often explode, but the explosion would have been audible, and the train would eventually have stopped running.

Having worked as an airline mechanic for a short time during his college years, he said it actually sounds more like something that dropped from a plane. However, he put the story out on some railroad websites to see if anyone can figure this out.

Like this comment
Posted by TooMuchReally
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Do Want good firefighters but don't think the Captain should have such a large amount of money for his work.

Like this comment
Posted by danos
a resident of another community
on Oct 11, 2012 at 10:29 am

> I will have the trained professionals work on my family

What a ludicrous comment. Every other city in Santa Clara Country uses contracted ambulance services.

Are you suggesting that these people are not trained to the same level as PAFD EMTs and paramedics? If so you are very very misinformed.


Like this comment
Posted by Antoine Dodson
a resident of another community
on Oct 11, 2012 at 11:02 am

maybe if citizens would have more relevant medical "emergencies" - firefighters wouldn't have to go on so many ambulance requests. Seriously.

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Oct 12, 2012 at 8:14 am

The man has not started his first day on the job and already some people are lining up to profess how he's going to fail or a waste of money. He obviously did not retire from Novato FD due to his age and since Novato is in CALPERS he couldnt retire from the then retire from Palo Alto as well. You can't get two separate pensions from CALPERS.
I also noticed that nobody who has said how much more the PAFD costs the taxpayers for service over other fire depts, has not brought up budgets of Novato and Palo Alto. Novato's budget was listed as 29 million for 88 employee's and Palo Alto's was listed as 26 million for 117 employee's. And, Stanford University pays a large portion of Palo Alto budget so the actual cost to the City of Palo Alto is 1/3 less.
It looks like Palo Alto was already running a bigger dept with less money, even before you factor in Stanfords portion they pay.
James Keene and the City Council should be answering to the public as to why they spent the money to hire an OES Director/Chief and start an entire new divison that does not fall under the Police or Fire Dept? OES ie Office of Emergency Services is supposed to do what exactly? Are there so many or any disasters happening in Palo Alto that required the formation of a entire new dept with a new Chief of OES?
Just another feel good project of the City Council and City Manager so they can feel good about themselves. Common sense would tell most people that an OES director would be a part of police or fire, not a dept stand alone.

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