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DOWNEY − Mark Gillaspie will have a long checklist after he’s sworn in as Downey’s ninth fire chief this August.
Number one on the agenda? Rebuilding trust.
“I really want to step up as a leader and try to figure out a way to unite the entire department again,” said Gillaspie, who will assume control of the Downey Fire Department when current chief Lonnie Croom retires on Aug. 1.
“The current conditions are a challenge, but that’s what firefighters do — we make things better. I want to make things better.”
Gillaspie, who’s served as assistant fire chief since 2011, acknowledges that it’s been a tumultuous 24 months for the Downey Fire Department after several heated legal and political tussles between the city and the Downey Firemen’s Association.
Last year, the fire union successfully collected more than 12,000 signatures to place Measure B on the ballot in next month’s primary. If approved by residents, the initiative will amend the city charter, eliminating the two-thirds voter approval necessary for the Downey City Council to contract out police and fire services.
Fire union officials say the change is necessary because Downey is violating the charter by hiring outside jailers, exposing Downey taxpayers to potential lawsuits.
Last December, the Downey Firemen’s Association also filed a tort claim against the city, alleging ongoing retaliation, harassment and discrimination following the union’s vote of “no confidence” in chief Croom last June.
Gillaspie would not speak on behalf of the fire union, but made it clear that he reports to the city council.
“I’m obviously a big supporter of the Downey Fire Department,” said Gillaspie, who’s worked his entire career in Downey starting in 1989. “Coming from within, I understand their issues and I will try to be an advocate for them. I’d like to think that with some respect and clear communication, we can work together.”
He fell short of endorsing either side of the Measure B debate, but pledged to support the city however directed following the election.
As far as the new assistant fire chief goes, Gillaspie says the decision will be a number one priority as he slowly assumes all day-to-day operations. The selection process is still being discussed, but Gillaspie would like to see candidates from within the department.
Born and raised in Grinnell, Iowa, Gillaspie has spent his entire fire career in Downey since moving to California in the mid-80s.
“Ultimately, it was a family friend who said, ‘you’d make a good firefighter.’ I scoffed it off when they first suggested it, but I followed up on it…and it’s been a blessing. This is not just a job, it truly is a passion.”
Gillaspie was promoted to fire engineer in 1995 and appointed a captain in 1998. He was a chief officer with Downey Fire for 14 years, and was promoted to assistant fire chief three years ago. He now lives in Temecula with his wife of 25 years and their three young adult sons.
While the drive to work is admittedly long, he says it gives him plenty of time to think. And with the many changes on the horizon for emergency medical services, he just might need the time.
“The city is getting stronger, we’re getting back on track, but fire service in general is getting busier and busier, trying to maintain,” he said. “We’ve got to think of new ways to offer traditional services with less [funding]. It’s the fiscal challenge of coming up with funding every year…but we’ve got to come up with more creative ways to do that.
“Downey has an excellent reputation throughout this area and I take my responsibilities very seriously. Hardworking and humble — that’s what I strive to be.”
Published: May 22, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 06