Monday, August 20 , 2018, 10:10 pm | A Few Clouds with Haze 67º


Local News

Mike Dyer Settling In as Santa Barbara County Fire Chief

He sits down with Noozhawk to talk about his hopes and expectations for the department

In California, firefighters have always held a kind of status reserved for rock stars, and Santa Barbara County’s new fire chief, Michael Dyer, is no exception.

With three large fires breaking out since July 2008, Santa Barbarans are all too aware of the perils against which firefighters often serve as a last line of defense, and are incredibly grateful for their efforts.

In fact, just before beginning this interview, Dyer showed up at a local coffee shop, in uniform, and was immediately asked to pose for a photo with two teenage girls. He graciously obliged, and after talking with them for a bit, sat down to dish about life on the new job, budget cuts, expectations for the department and his experience working as a firefighter for 23 years in Los Angeles.

Listed on his lengthy resume are the roles of firefighter, firefighter paramedic, engineer, fire prevention inspector, captain, battalion chief and assistant fire chief, where he watched over seven cities and 23 stations. He was promoted to deputy chief after that and served as agency administrator during the 2007 fires in L.A.

He’s also a hazardous-materials specialist, a certified paramedic, an urban search-and-rescue specialist and a certified fire chief — one of only 18 in the state — by the California Fire Marshall’s office.

Dyer also has a master’s degree in public administration from Cal State, Northridge and recently graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School’s executive leadership program.

He managed a $950 million budget as a business chief deputy in Los Angeles, and has made it clear he’ll be very involved with the finances as the fire department continues to try to run a tight ship.

“I know that we’re very, very tight for money right now, and so I need to look at whatever sources I can within my means to see what’s available out there,” he said. A top priority will be looking at contracts the department has been using to evaluate their effectiveness and taking every revenue stream and expenditure.

“I told our finance people that I want to know the budget as well as they do,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to rely on staff reports. “When I go before the board ... I’m accountable for it.”

Dyer was sworn in before the county Board of Supervisors this summer, and got his first Santa Barbara County fire experience when the La Brea Fire broke out in North County.

Dealing with multiple agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and CAL FIRE, was key when dealing with larger fires in Los Angeles, and keeping local government part of the solution as those agencies work together is important to Dyer.

“Quite early on in this fire, I inserted myself in the command process,” he said.

When crews were working on structure protection in Tepusquet Canyon, Dyer said he “raised a stink” when he saw they needed additional equipment. “The next day, we had what we needed,” he said. “That’s what my job is.”

Dyer said his experience statewide and nationally should be a benefit to the county. “They know when I come to the command post that I know what’s going on, and they know that I’m going to be an advocate for the citizens of Santa Barbara. I am not going to sit on my hands,” he said.

In that vein, the department is working “feverishly” to get an operating contract under way with the Forest Service, Dyer said.

“There hasn’t been one in place for over a year, and this fire broke out and there really wasn’t a way for us to pay one another,” he said. The Forest Service and the county fire department worked that out on an emergency basis, he said, but the groups are working to come to a permanent agreement.

“This fire was really good from the standpoint of learning how we all communicate with one another, and it wasn’t what I would call ‘pedal to the metal’ where it’s coming down the hill at you,” he said of the La Brea Fire.

Learning where the department was before he arrived on staff is on Dyer’s priority list now, which will help determine where it goes in the future. Ensuring that the next fire chief of the department comes from the inside drives Dyer’s teaching style of leadership.

“I’ve got to mentor and teach and help them grow,” he said. “I feel like if I do my job and afford them the opportunities to grow, then they’re going to be ready to take this organization to greater heights when I leave.”

Financially, the department is in a “holding pattern,” as far as cutting jobs, he said, but the state will be taking $1.9 billion from local governments statewide.

Looking to next year, however, presents more of a challenge. “We know that property taxes are not going to be going up, and they may even go down,” he said. “We’re looking at, long range, how are we going to be able to fund our basic service delivery?” That will be the focus of strategy sessions in the coming months, he said.

“There’s a structural imbalance with the fire district budget,” Dyer said. “Property taxes aren’t keeping up with services and growth, and we’re going to need to address that.”

County supervisors voted to allow the bidding process to begin on a new Emergency Operations Center, estimated to cost $7 million.

“I think the EOC is going to be great for this county,” Dyer said. He acknowledged money was tight, but added that it’s a great time to buy and build. “I know if we wait a couple of years to build it, it will cost $2 or $3 million more than it does right now.”

A grand jury report issued in April called for new EOC headquarters, and Dyer agrees. A recent example of the need for a central facility presented itself when the Martin Mars Super Scooper arrived to drop water on the La Brea Fire, but didn’t have permission to drop because an agreement wasn’t in place.

“We sent the information to the EOC, they took care of it, and two hours later the lake was open,” he said. “That’s the type of stuff where an EOC government is working at its finest.”

Dyer commutes from Los Angeles everyday, where he lives with his wife, Vicky, his 17-year old-son, Ryan, and 14-year-old daughter, Courtney.

Surprisingly, Dyer commutes to Santa Barbara in about the same amount of time it took him to get to work in East Los Angeles. “But the drive up here is much nicer,” he said.

As a new face from another jurisdiction, Dyer is optimistic about staying above the politics that can sometimes come with a new position.

“I made up my mind that when I became fire chief, that I’m going to make decisions about what’s right and not worry about my job. I’ll go down swinging if it’s for something I believe in,” he said. “When I wake up every morning, I’m going to remember the trust and confidence that the board put in me and the citizens of this county.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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