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An interview with Tony Bowden, Santa Clara County’s new fire chief

Goals for New Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden

Healthy workforce, strong infrastructure and ‘servant leadership’

Santa Clara County’s new fire chief assumed his post recently. One of the main things on Tony Bowden’s mind is reducing the cancer rate among current and former firefighters.

By having dozens of firefighters agree to be closely monitored by health specialists, Bowden wants to help understand how to make the inherently dangerous occupation safer.

But even before the results of that study are in, Bowden has implemented several procedural changes that he hopes will keep his men and women safer. For example, he says he is making sure firefighters shower and get into clean clothes as soon as they can in the wake of a fire. And they must thoroughly wash their “turnouts” — firefighting clothes — before donning them again. They have a second set.

“We have a significant problem with cancer in the fire service,” he says. “Even though we are fighting less fires, we are fighting fires in environments with more synthetic materials.”

In the 1950s, firefighters faced mostly flames fueled mostly by cotton, wool, wood and other natural fibers. Today’s fires, fueled by compounds such as plastics and other synthetic substances, are more toxic.

Backup communications center

Firefighter health and wellness is not his only priority. Bowden is also pursuing a host of infrastructure improvements. For example, the county is actively looking for a suitable location for a new backup communications center. Two fire stations are slated for an overhaul next year, with more expected to follow.

“We have a significant problem with cancer in the fire service. Even though we are fighting less fires, we are fighting fires in environments with more synthetic materials.” – Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Bowden doesn’t believe in top-down leadership, but he knows where the buck stops. He took the reins of the department in August 2018.

Now that the lean budget years of the Great Recession are over, he says, it’s time to tackle deferred maintenance and other critical needs before the next downturn.

Another change he’s bringing along is the implementation of what he calls “next-generation 911”  for emergency dispatch. The new computer-aided system should make dispatchers more effective and potentially save lives. Its ability to quickly and accurately determine where a call is coming from can shave off precious seconds in an emergency.

Leadership style

His third focus is improving the department’s internal communications. Bowden says the department’s bench strength is excellent. Ties between the fire union and management are already strong, he said.

Now he wants to make sure every employee feels fully invested in their work. He’ll operate through what he calls “servant leadership.” Definitions vary, but one critical component is decision-making in which people focus on helping everyone do their best work.

Bowden is careful to praise his predecessor, Ken Kehmna, for leaving him a department that’s in excellent shape.

Recently, Bowden sat down with Newsbeat at his office in Los Gatos for his first extended outside interview about his plans as the new chief. Listen to our podcast and get a better flavor of what’s in the offing under Bowden’s leadership.

— By Chuck Carroll, Newsbeat Editor

Did you know?

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden:

  • Started with the Los Altos Fire Department in 1996 just as it was merging with County Fire in 1996.
  • Succeeds Chief Ken Kehmna, who is retired in August after nearly three decades with the department. Bowden worked his way up through every rank.
  • Sits as the Santa Clara County operational area fire and rescue mutual aid coordinator. He organizes the response of mutual aid resources. Bowden makes sure no area is left uncovered in a mutual aid situation.

Santa Clara County Fire Department

  • $104 million budget, more than 300 employees.
  • Covers seven cities and unincorporated areas of the county. The cities are Campbell, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Cupertino, and Saratoga.
  • Diverse coverage area includes urban Campbell and Cupertino and the rural and wildland-urban verges around Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
  • County Fire is an all-hazard, all-risk agency. It plans for and responds to nearly any type of emergency — medical, fire, rescue, chemical spills, earthquakes. An advanced life support paramedic works on every County Fire engine.
  • County Fire has one of only two Type 1 hazardous materials teams in the county. It can respond to any chemical event, including weapons of mass destruction.
  • County Fire is also certified in a range of specialized rescue operations.
  • The department’s public safety mission is organized within the following divisions – Operations, Communications, Emergency Management, Fire Prevention, and Training.
October 18, 2018

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