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New Santa Barbara Fire Chief looks at unique challenges with boots on the ground experience

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The new Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Chris Mailes is using his nearly 30 years of experience and teamwork to lead the department as it faces new and unique challenges ahead.

It comes at a time when the region is heading into high fire season amidst what's been described as another serious drought pattern.

In addition to the fire threats from every side but the ocean, Mailes and the department have a variety of challenges in a city that has an airport, a train route, a major U.S. highway, a working harbor, thousands of weekend tourists and a growing trend of bike riders, many on the new e-bikes with speeds up to nearly 30 miles an hour.

There are also concerns about responses in the State Street promenade zone and designs have been measured to make sure fire engines have enough access.

Each fire season, there's also a need for mutual aid strike teams which utilizes many city firefighters and equipment.

As a Battalion Chief Mailes worked to change the dispatch call out system to speed up the time between getting the 911 information and getting an engine out of the stations heading to the emergency. The computerized voice is backed up by a message to a computer pad in the engines, and the "human" fire dispatcher follows up with additional information.

The calls for service these days are drastically higher than what Mailes saw in the early 90's.

"We are running over 10,000 calls a year in the department  and about 7200 of those are medicals. When I came on in 1993 we were just over 5000," said Mailes.

"We get to calls in about six minutes and that's from the point we get the 911 call. We rely on the public to help us (before an engine arrives)" he said.

Mailes has been the boots on the ground guy, but says the public will be a key partner with the department in the planning and prevention that's  vital to save lives and property.

Mailes says he's always looking for new ideas and technology. "As good as we think we might be it's always refreshing to see what other people are doing, what other departments are doing. I've done that my  entire career."

At meetings and conferences he says he tries to take ideas, suggestions and applications other departments have in place to see if they can work in Santa Barbara.

An increase in rollover crashes, many on surface streets,  are among the noticeable calls  the department has seen in the last year. "Santa Barbara's getting busier and the bikeways the roadways the building density it is all contributing to increased risk and it is my responsibility to try stay ahead of it." The number of accidents on city streets is increasing as people start driving more following the COVID slowdown. "We are seeing more accidents on the highway, more accidents on city streets."

That will include a citywide risk assessment standards of cover study to see if the department has stations in the right places and enough personnel.

Mailes said the mutual aid system in California is the best in the nation. "If we talk the Jesusita fire, the Tea  fire, the Cave fire,  those fires don't care about where they are burning.  Those relationships we have with other departments is really, really  important."

High fire season will be declared next week,  after a dismal winter with below average rain.
Chief Mailes  says wildfire preparation is underway now and his department along with the united front on the Central Coast stands ready.

"Our folks are ready   they know it's coming.  We are doing  our annual wildland retraining right now,  it's happening right now our folks are getting dialed in to what may be coming in the next few weeks."

He will meet often with other agencies and his staff to keep collaborations solid. "You will not find a more collaborative group of professionals that are wiliing and able to share and work together," said Mailes. 

He warns the public to never under estimate the topography of the area. It has a "wildland urban interface with a south facing slope that is ripe for a fire to take off at anytime."

Community outreach, including into the homeless camps, will be part of the departments prevention goals.
"The goal of any fire service is to prevent the call from happening," said Mailes. "Our fire prevention team is out checking on homeless camps. We actually formed a pubic safety task force."

He said the city has some unique changes in the last year that will also take a team effort. "We're dealing with the State Street promenade,  new bicycle pattens,  new traffic patterns and traffic flows."

Mailes replaces former Eric Nickel who left in October.

Local Politics / Politics / Safety / Santa Barbara - South County
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John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3. To learn more about John, click here.

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