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Local News

Veteran Santa Maria Firefighter Reflects on Career As Retirement Nears

Battalion chief marks more than three decades on city force — ‘I have loved every minute of it’

The longest-serving member of the Santa Maria Fire Department will hang up his hat after one last shift on Christmas Day.

Battalion Chief Richard Bertram surprised himself by choking up with emotion as he bid farewell during a special recognition before the Santa Maria City Council on Dec. 16 in honor of his 34 years of full-time service. 

“I have loved every minute of it,” he said Thursday. “I’m not leaving because I don’t love my job.”

Chief Dan Orr noted that those who belong to an organization are “simply shepherds of the organization.”

“The goal is always to leave the organization better then you found it,” Orr said. “It is not hard to find Chief Bertram's fingerprints on many of the improvements that have been made to the organization over the years.

"Rick cares deeply the department and the city as a whole and filling his shoes is going to be difficult.”

Bertram chose the career as a youth growing up in West Los Angeles, and attended Santa Barbara City College. He originally spent a year as a member of a Santa Barbara County Fire Department hand crew.

He then attended the Hancock College fire academy en route to becoming a full-time firefighter.

Bertram first served as a reserve firefighter with the Santa Maria department before being hired full-time as the city’s third fire station, then near College Avenue and Donovan Road, was about to open.

While rising through the ranks, he’s seen the department through five chiefs, the addition of three more stations, plus replacement of Station 3 and the celebration of the agency’s 100th anniversary.

“I love these guys. It’s fun to watch them work,” Bertram said. “They are so good.  It’s very exciting to be involved in this stage of the fire service. It’s changed so much, and that’s fun to be involved with.”

During his career, he’s also seen the dramatic changes in equipment and skills employed by firefighters.

“The technology is really incredible. It makes it a much safer job for these guys,” he said. 

When he started, firefighters responded to a few basic medical calls and fires. Nowadays, their training has much more importance as crews must have skills in handling assorted disciplines such as hazardous materials along with urban search-and-rescue situations.

Bertram recalled seeing crews employing some of those skills after the Town Center Inn fire in October 2013, as they built a temporary structure to shore up the unstable facade.

“To watch those guys put that together that quickly and know exactly what they were doing, it’s fun to see,”  Bertram said. “It really is exciting to watch them perform and, as the chief says, to do their craft. They’re very good at it.”

He noted he has worked with three generations of firefighters, including the older ones who were on the job when he joined the agency and retired long ago. He’s the last of his generation and now gets to see a new generation making a mark on the fire service.

“It’s fun to see that evolution and the camaraderie and how they all mold together,” he said. “They are so much better than I ever was at that stage of my career. They are so well-educated, so well-trained.”

When he retires, the Shell Beach resident and his wife, Theresa, plan to travel and enjoy his freedom of not having to regularly report for shifts. 

And he isn’t totally leaving the profession, since he will continue to work part-time as a member of the Central Coast Interagency Incident Management Team, whose members respond as needed to wildland fires across the West.

It’s yet another chance to do the job he loves so much. 

“What I find unique about it is I don’t know a fireman that doesn’t love their job," Bertram said. "I look forward to coming to work. I look forward to being around the people that I’m around and I look forward to everything that we do."

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully 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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