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San Diego launches nationwide search for next fire chief

San Diego hasn’t hired an outsider to run its Fire-Rescue Department in more than two decades, but it’s expected to take a harder look at doing so

San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell

Colin Stowell, fire chief for San Diego Fire-Rescue, speaks at a news conference at San Diego Fire Station 54 in Mission Valley on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

Rob Nikolewski/TNS

By David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — San Diego hasn’t hired an outsider to run its Fire-Rescue Department in more than two decades, but it’s expected to take a harder look at doing so this spring.

While the city has three legitimate in-house candidates to replace retiring Fire Chief Colin Stowell, each has either less or different experience than the firefighters who have previously risen to the top job.

The new chief will take over at a crucial time. A firefighter shortage is being blamed for ballooning overtime costs, and the department must decide whether to continue with a recent takeover of ambulance deployment.

San Diego firefighters usually oppose hiring an outsider as chief based on concerns someone from another fire agency would struggle to understand the department’s culture and would face a steep learning curve.

An outsider could be unfamiliar with some of the department’s emergency management protocols, how the city handles its wildland-urban interface and San Diego’s unusual topography with many canyons.

The last outsider the city hired to run the department was Jeff Bowman, who was the top fire official in Anaheim before San Diego hired him away in 2002.

But an outsider could be more attractive this time around, because none of the three in-house candidates — Deputy Chief Robert Logan, Assistant Chief Dave Gerboth and Assistant Chief John Wood — have the same depth of experience of the city’s previous fire chiefs.

Logan is considered a rising star and is well-respected by his peers. For the past three years he has been a deputy chief — one level below assistant chief, the rank most previous chiefs held before getting promoted.

Gerboth, assistant chief for emergency operations, has the most experience of the three in-house candidates. His job includes overseeing emergency response, rescues, air operations and dealing with hazardous materials.

Wood holds the city’s other assistant chief position, which oversees business operations and is often considered a better training ground for the top job because it’s a more political and professional position.

That job oversees the department’s data center, employee services, logistics and community risk reduction. The arguable blemish on Wood’s resume is that he skipped the rank of battalion chief on his way up.

Each of the three has been trying to secure support from fellow firefighters since Chief Stowell announced his plans to retire this winter.

The city has indicated it may prioritize diversity in recruiting to lead the department.

Most of San Diego’s 18 fire chiefs have been white men. But there have been some exceptions.

They include Javier Mainar, a Latino who led the department from 2009 to 2015, and Tracy Jarman, an openly gay woman who was chief from 2006 to 2009. Two Black men, John Delotch and Robert Osby, also held the top job before that.

Of the current internal candidates, Logan is Black; Wood and Gerboth are both White.

In a brochure recently created for fire chief applicants, the city says someone who will focus on diversity and equity is a priority. “The ideal candidate must have the ability to plan, direct and review fire service operations and activities, while encouraging a climate of cultural diversity,” the brochure says.

“The ideal candidate will integrate a myriad of new approaches in the department that include eliminating discriminatory practices rooted within inequitable systems, expanding training around systemic racism to address implicit/explicit biases and encouraging a climate of culture diversity,” the brochure continues.

In his weekly newsletter Monday, Mayor Todd Gloria also mentioned diversity.

“We are in search of a dynamic, collaborative and seasoned individual capable of engaging with our diverse community,” he said. “The ideal candidate will have a proven track record in resource management and implementing innovative business solutions.”

To gather public feedback, the city has launched an online survey and scheduled two evening public forums next month.

The first forum is scheduled for Wednesday, April 3, at Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, 6401 Skyline Drive. The second is scheduled for Thursday, April 4 , at Kearny Mesa Recreation Center, 3170 Armstrong St.

Both forums are slated to run from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

A link to the online survey and other details about the city’s fire chief search are available at

San Diego recently hired Bob Murray & Associates, an executive recruitment firm, to lead the national search. The deadline for applications is April 22 . The salary range listed for the job is $300,000 to $325,000.

The mayor says interviews with finalists will take place in May and that he’ll make a selection in June. Under that schedule, the City Council would confirm the mayor’s choice in July, and the new chief would take over when Stowell retires in August.

The search for a new fire chief comes just after Gloria chose Scott Wahl last week to become the city’s new police chief. Wahl will replace retiring Chief David Nisleit.

For fire chief, finalists will be interviewed by members of the mayor’s staff and by a panel of community leaders that will be nominated by the mayor and members of the City Council .

In addition to the problems with staffing and overtime, the new chief must deal with the city’s takeover last fall of ambulance scheduling and deployment.

That setup, which operates under what’s called the alliance model, is expected to cut response times and be financially lucrative. But city officials said last week it’s still too early to know the financial impact.

The city is also slated to increase its number of fire stations from 51 to 56 in the next few years. New stations are slated for the Torrey Pines area, Black Mountain Ranch, Otay Mesa, Skyline Hills and Fairmount Avenue in City Heights.

While San Diego hasn’t hired an outsider as chief since 2002, Stowell left San Diego in 2016 to lead Heartland Fire & Rescue in El Cajon before coming back to the city for its top firefighting job two years later.

George Duardo, president of the labor union representing city firefighters, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the chief search.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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