The Winters Fire Department has “come home” in a sense, having ended its six-year contract with the Dixon Fire Department in November to share fire chiefs. The partnership, which began with Chief Aaron McAlister’s term (which ended in August 2016) and then continued with Interim Chiefs Greg Lewis and most recently Jay Bushrow, brought new perspectives and training to the Winters Fire Department.
Bushrow, who joined the department in July 2017, ended his term as Winters Fire Chief along with the expiration of the contract. City Manager John Donlevy says there were “no issues” with the Dixon Fire Department, “we just were ready to bring it back in house to our personnel.”
But which personnel, exactly? The city found itself in the position of having more than one in-house candidate able and ready to move into the fire chief position, so Donlevy chose to let all three candidates have a crack at the job.
Beginning Jan. 1, Captain Brad Lopez became the interim fire chief and will remain in that position until April 30. From May 1 to Aug. 31, Captain Matt Schechla will assume that role, followed by Captain Art Mendoza, who will be the interim fire chief from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31. Not only does this give each candidate a chance to try the role on for size, it also provides the city with an opportunity to see each one as the interim fire chief in order to make the best decision possible for the community.
“The interim chief program is the next step in moving Winters Fire into the future,” said Donlevy. “The city gained a tremendous amount from our six-year contract with the City of Dixon for Fire Administrative Services, but it is just time for command of the organization to move back within the Winters Fire organization in order for us to move forward.
“I have full confidence that the captains can provide the leadership to our entire fire team and that we will eventually be able to select a permanent chief after the year-long program.”
Donlevy says the goal of the Interim Fire Chief Program is to provide the candidates with an opportunity to develop themselves professionally, like a “one-year professional development program.”
“As an organization, a key value is that we are building leadership throughout the organization from top to bottom. The three captains are exceptional and each brings different strengths and capabilities to Winters Fire. Each can experience the challenges of being chief and meet with other chiefs and leaders within the region, which will help give them a perspective they can carry forward in whatever roles they play within our organization after the program has concluded.”
“In the end, it will produce a stronger, more capable Winters Fire,” says Donlevy.
He notes that the captains themselves are implementing a similar program with an “Acting Captain Program” to develop leadership and supervisory skills within their reserve firefighters. As each captain rotates into the chief position, other personnel will assume acting captain positions and gain experience with those responsibilities.
This “succession planning” being implemented at the fire department is something Donlevy wants to employ elsewhere amongst city staff in an effort to “build the next generation who will lead the City of Winters.”
“This is a key element where we are cultivating the abilities from within to hopefully strengthen from within the core of the organization,” says Donlevy. “Few professional development opportunities like this exist.”
Noting the Winters Fire Department’s 100-year history of serving the community with both volunteers and paid staff, he says the city is strategically positioning the department for the future, and “utilizing our long-term staff to lead the way.”
Meet the captains
Donlevy said the issue of which of the three captains would become the interim fire chief was solved in the same way other “luck of the draw” decisions are made at city council meetings: numbered walnuts were drawn from a bag.
“Totally random,” says Donlevy.
First up and already on duty is Lopez, who has a 25-year history with the Winters Fire Department. He has worked his way up through the ranks as a cadet, volunteer firefighter, firefighter and captain.
Lopez is excited to be the acting fire chief, a goal he’s long aspired to, and one that was held by four chiefs over the course of his career, exposing him to a variety of skills and leadership.
“To serve the city of Winters as interim fire chief is truly an exciting opportunity for the three of us. In my 25-year career with the Winters Fire Department, I have been fortunate to have worked under some great leaders and fire chiefs.
“I began my career with the Winters Fire Department under retired Fire Chief Dave Kidder as a volunteer firefighter and Fire Chief Scott Dozier, who I served under most of my career. He is the reason I am here today, and to whom I owe my gratitude.
“My education and the values they taught me about the Winters Fire Department has prepared me for this. I’m looking forward to the opportunities and the challenges that lay ahead for me and us collectively.”
When asked if it felt a little odd to be doing a job while also competing for it with two of his peers, Lopez said he viewed it another way.
“This is an opportunity for the three of us collectively. We have different backgrounds, experiences and strengths, and we work very well together. I see it as an opportunity for the three of us to be a leader in the Winters Fire Department and grow together, and to address some of the challenges in fire service and create a vision for how the Winters Fire Department can serve the community better.”
He notes that in addition to an on-the-job experience, each of the captains will have an opportunity to work with other area fire chiefs, which will further expand their skills.
Interim Fire Chief Number Two, Schechla, has nearly 18 years of experience as a firefighter, 15 of which were spent at the Burney Fire Department and almost three with the Winters Fire Department. One of his focuses will be for the fire department to meet the expectations of the community, particularly when fire personnel show up on a call.
Schechla says he was motivated to participate in the interim chief rotation because it’s “an opportunity that I probably won’t get offered again in the future.” He says he’s looking forward to interacting with regional fire chiefs throughout the county, particularly because he is relatively new to the area.
“It’s an opportunity to meet people and different chiefs, to see how they organize and how they work. I think it’s a great idea.”
Like Lopez, he says he has a good working relationship with his two peers, and each is familiar with the others’ duties and special skills. As captains, and now as interim chiefs, each will be able to fill in for the other over the year and going forward, providing “seamless” fire department coverage.
“That’s the beauty of this thing,” comments Mendoza, the third interim fire chief, taking over in the fall.
Like Lopez and Schechla, he says the three make a cohesive group and work well together.
“When you have an organization this size, everyone knows the tasks to be done. Any of us can fall right in and keep the motor running as smoothly as possible, with no hiccups. “
Mendoza, who was born and raised in Winters, says he always wanted to be a firefighter here, and got started at age 14 as a cadet in 1986. He became a volunteer firefighter at 18, a full-time firefighter in 2003, and then served as engineer, lieutenant, and finally captain in 2006, remaining in that role ever since. He says he is thankful both for a chance to be the next fire chief and to show the community his skills.
“We all bring something different to the table,” he says. “We’re just building that tool box for the community.”
Mendoza says his goals as interim fire chief will include great communication with the community and a “flawless” experience when community members have a need from the fire department, such as requests for permits and inspections. He will aim for the fire department to “be more efficient as a group” so that people can get what they need from whomever is on duty.
“If I’m not here, someone else can do it,” he says.
As for the competitive nature of the year of rotations, Mendoza says it is still “an opportunity to learn the job regardless of the outcome.
“I’m going to learn a lot and at the end of the day, it’s what’s best for the team. It’s going to make us better as a department.”