People call the fire department for everything: A Q&A with new Santa Cruz fire chief Rob Oatey

New Santa Cruz fire chief Rob Oatey
Santa Cruz city fire chief Rob Oatey wants his team ready for anything from prolonged fire season to water rescues: “We’re always striving to provide the highest level of service, but are aiming to be prepared for any situation.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Climate change. Drought. More public needs of every kind. We asked new city of Santa Cruz fire chief Rob Oatey what motivates him, and challenges him, in his new role.

A lot has changed since Robert Oatey first joined the city of Santa Cruz Fire Department in 1999.

Rob Oatey

At the time, the young firefighter-paramedic had already served the community for a few years, first joining the city as a pool lifeguard at Harvey West Park in 1994 and then as a beach lifeguard and marine rescue responder in 1995.

In the 28 years since, the Santa Cruz native has performed in a number of roles — including fire engineer, fire captain and division chief/fire marshal — most recently serving as the interim chief of the fire department since August 2021, when his friend and predecessor Jason Hajduk retired. Two weeks ago, Oatey became the new department head, managing a staff of 62 sworn personnel and additional seasonal employees across four fire stations, with an annual department budget of just over $21 million.

In a recent conversation with Lookout, Oatey talked about what’s ahead as all Santa Cruz city departments continue to contend with budget cuts and staffing shortages. Further, as drought conditions and climate change worsen, prolonged and less predictable fire seasons offer round-the-clock challenges.

In 2021, the department received 8,701 calls for service, and Oatey notes that though calls for service have increased 25% over the past 20 years, staffing, stations and facilities have remained unchanged.

Oatey spoke with Lookout virtually during a weeklong incident management training in Oakland following the April 22 announcement of his appointment.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: You have a long history with the SCFD. Did you ever expect to become the department’s chief?

Rob Oatey: No, I did not. If I were to look back to when I got hired in November 1999 — the same time as Jason Hajduk — we both would have been a bit incredulous to the fact that we’d ever be in this position.

I think everybody in the fire service will tell you, at least with some hesitation, that you don’t know what to expect in terms of long-term future and predictions. I don’t think it’s definitely something that everybody is afforded, in terms of these opportunities — but when you have these opportunities to expand your knowledge and experience, you jump at them. I would share that wisdom with anybody else; opportunity doesn’t knock every day, so when it does, jump on it.

Lookout: How has the department transformed since you originally joined in 1999? What are some of the bigger challenges now that didn’t exist 23 years ago?

Oatey: When I first joined, the department was in the midst of a transition that was going to provide paramedic and EMS services on the fire engines. That really sort of prepared me for the future, and has helped us to go to an “all risk” approach.

People call the fire department because they need help — it doesn’t matter if the house is on fire, if they’re in a car accident, or someone’s having chest pains, they’re going to call 911, and we’re going to come out there. We’re always striving to provide the highest level of service, but are aiming to be prepared for any situation.

Lookout: What are some of the major action items you hope to accomplish in your new role?

Oatey: Coming from my years of experience with the marine division [where Oatey worked with seasonal lifeguards, fire engine-based rescue swimmers and on-call marine rescue responders at the beginning of his time on the force], we really need to address and bridge the gap with a marine firefighting resource, a fire boat.

There’s a need for a fire boat for many reasons, one of which is our economic stability for the city, with a lot of our revenue provided by the municipal wharf. It’s imperative that we protect it, and are again responsive to our citizens and visitors. Having an additional water rescue resource would be effective to the needs of our community. For a city like Santa Cruz that’s on the coast and a tourist destination, it’s definitely something that we need to be focused on, and make sure we’re addressing.

New Santa Cruz fire chief Rob Oatey
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

[From 2011 to 2020,] the city had a placeholder, with an old fire boat that was decommissioned by the Coast Guard and was actually owned by an agency in the Bay Area. That met the needs of water rescue, hazardous material response in the water environment and any sort of boat fire or any other fire in the marine environment. [The boat was donated after officials estimated the repairs and maintenance were too costly.]

Lookout: What has staffing looked like more recently for SCFD, and for fire departments in general?

Oatey: Recruitment and retention is a challenge not just for the city, but for the fire service as a whole throughout California. I think one of our biggest challenges is not having a training center; we’ve been battling to have a training center accessible for our department and other centrally located departments, with Santa Cruz city being the busiest fire department in the county.

Since I started with the department back in 1999, we’ve only added one position, of a marine safety captain. We’ve been relatively static since then in two ways: with our number of stations and the same number of personnel for probably 50-plus years.

It’s very difficult for us to balance our response to the community with the required training we have to perform monthly and annually to make sure our firefighters are adequately prepared for all of these situations.

We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves with increasing our population, increasing the size and scope of the city, while not making sure that we keep pace with the services and equipment that we as a fire department provide.

Lookout: How does your team best prepare for fire season, as larger fires have become part of the new normal?

New Santa Cruz fire chief Rob Oatey
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Oatey: We’ve gone from a fire season to a fire year — it’s definitely something that keeps me up at night, especially as we approach the warmer, drier season. I’ve never been more focused on weather and weather patterns. We as a department aim to do the best we can when responding to calls for service, and in this case, we’re trying to do the best we can at prevention.

We’ve done a tremendous amount of wildfire resiliency in our wildland-urban interface throughout the city, and we’re doing outreach and education with a number of different community groups to get them better prepared. We’re making sure people are prepared for any emergency.

Lookout: With your long history of working in the city of Santa Cruz, how will you approach the position to work with other fire departments to ensure that all parts of Santa Cruz County are protected?

Oatey: The best thing I can do moving forward as the fire chief is to make sure that I establish and maintain healthy and cooperative relationships with those other fire chiefs and other county agencies that can provide assistance as needed. I can get caught up in the weeds of all of our differences, but I think it’s more productive to get caught up in how we can be more of an assistance to each other and work collaboratively as we move forward.

I couldn’t be more honored or proud to be able to serve the community that gave me so much as a child, and is providing so much for my children currently. It’s not the norm to have people that are firefighters who are actually from and live in the cities they serve — that’s a very unique aspect to the city of Santa Cruz, and one that makes me extremely proud. It sort of only enhances the sense of pride that I have been able to lead this uniquely talented group of individuals with, who not only call this place home, but are proud to work for this organization.

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