Thursday, May 26 , 2016, 10:48 pm | Fair 59º

Santa Maria’s Longest-Serving Firefighter Is Still Fired Up by the Job

Battalion Chief Rick Bertram reflects on a career that has spanned a third of the department's 100-year history

By Gina Potthoff, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @ginapotthoff |

No call sticks out in the nearly 33 years of memories Santa Maria Fire Battalion Chief Rick Bertram has of the job he loves.

The fire and medical calls for assistance seem to “bleed together,” according to Bertram, 56.

Every day, he could have been seeing someone on the worst day of his or her life. So, every day, Bertram dedicated his all to serve.

Called a model within the SMFD, Bertram boasts a rank as its longest-serving firefighter.

Bertram and his fellow firefighters are celebrating the fire services’ centennial this year with a series of activities, which kicked off Sunday with a small ceremony and barbecue for past and present firefighters.

Last week, Bertram smiled as he realized he can count on one finger the number of firefighters who are older than he is. That smile widened in partial astonishment when he said the young firefighters he’s in charge of training now weren’t even born when he started working part time for the department in 1978.

“A lot of our guys were kids,” said Bertram, who was still fairly fresh out of Allan Hancock College’s fire academy when he joined SMFD. “It’s been a really great career.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Bertram attended junior college and then Hancock before spending time with the Santa Barbara County Fire Hotshots and American Medical Response. He joined SMFD full time when Fire Station No. 3 opened in 1980.

At 100 years old, today’s Fire Department is nothing like the agency he joined three decades ago. The department now serves a city with a population of 100,000 versus the 30,000 who lived there in 1980. What used to be three fire calls a day split between three stations has become 25 calls a day split divided among five stations, or six if the airport station is included.

“You’re doing more training now than we ever did,” Bertram told Noozhawk. “I’m a perfect example. I can’t do this forever.”

Bertram has been in charge of training new recruits since September, six months after his promotion to battalion chief.

Firefighters are trained for auto extrication, hazardous materials, mass casualty events — a lot more than the fire and EMS training Bertram received years ago.

“I like it because I’m trying to help them,” Bertram said. “My hands are in everything. I’ve seen all the changes. We have such a great department. I would put these guys up against anybody.”

Battalion Chief Alan Widling, who has worked alongside Bertram for 26 years, continues to be impressed with his drive and determination.

“He’s got one exceptional work ethic,” Widling said. “He stands as a leader. Rick was out in front on these things. That’s what sets him apart. The foundation to see a future starts somewhere.”

Bertram, a Shell Beach resident, said he plans to stay on another year or two, now that he’s no longer “pulling hose” or “throwing ladder” on calls — at least that’s what he’s been telling Fire Chief Dan Orr.

“That’s what they all ask me,” he said, laughing. “Goes by quick. If I could stay 10 more years, I’d do it. There’s so much exciting stuff going on right now. I’m going to come and bug them.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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