There's fire in chief Turner's blood

DOWNEY -- Even before Fire Chief Jeff Turner joined the fire service some 33 years ago, he was already steeped in its culture. His father was a fire captain for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "I grew up with the fire service," he says.Turner's fire service career started inauspiciously with a stint as a wildland firefighter for the county fire department, then as a firefighter for the city of Azusa. In 1979, he and Mark Sauter (they went to high school together), signed up at the same time with the Downey Fire Department. He says one particularly valuable thing he brought to the department was people skills, which he honed in high school, where he played football and baseball. When Sauter was made deputy city manager for emergency management last December to avoid potentially disruptive future scenarios such as a major disaster or another boil water order incident, the mantle of fire chief fell on Turner. There is yet another connection worth mentioning. Turner was born at the old Downey Community Hospital (now DRMC), but grew up in the same Norwalk neighborhood as Police Chief Roy Campos'. The family was to move later to La Mirada. Not one to rest on his laurels, Turner nevertheless points with pride to his rapid rise within the department. His selection to go to paramedic school in May of 1980 came as a result, he says, of displaying good judgment and soundness in his field work. Four years later, in August of 1984, he earned a promotion to fire engineer. This meant getting to drive the fire engine and the ladder truck. At the same time he got involved with department training issues and with Joint Powers Communication Center (JPCC) operations which serve the cities of Downey, Santa Fe Springs, Compton and Montebello. His next significant promotion in February of 1986, this time to captain, included "bugles"-a fire service term indicating one has attained 'brass' or significant rank. He was 30 years old, and had been with the department less than seven years. As captain, Turner served as training officer, a USAR (search and rescue) team member, and broadened his work with JPCC. He had also by this time accumulated many hours doing volunteer work with the kids at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, an activity he remains committed to today. In early 1995 came another promotion, this time to battalion chief. His duties included managing the JPCC, work with which he was thoroughly familiar, and overseeing the department's stations and grounds. He was also put in charge of the city's preparedness efforts, tasked with ensuring city services were not interrupted through the century change. Meanwhile, in 2000 and again in 2006, he worked tours of duty as the assistant fire chief (a position now vacant and frozen because of economic constraints). As everyone knows, fire is a two-edged sword. If tamed, it works wonders. Untamed, it destroys. Armed with the fire code and attuned to the other provisions and nuances of the municipal code, DFD seeks to prevent injury or loss of life and property due to fire. Educating the public-residents, schoolchildren, etc.-on fire safety is therefore a major part of its mission. Citing a 2006 finding that U. S. fire departments across the country responded to almost 400,000 home structure fires, the department insists that many of these fires could have been prevented by taking simple precautions. Thus the sharp focus the department places on safety training and fire prevention. "Our personnel put in a minimum of twenty hours a month in training," says Turner. There are also the year-round random visits to businesses, etc. Easily a high point of the year is its weeklong mock 'drink-and-drive' traffic collision dramatization staged at Downey High to jar seniors' senses right before prom night. "We're always looking to do better in what we do," he says. The department is on emergency response alert 24/7, working three shifts 365 days a year. "This is priority number one," Turner says. "We're lucky in Downey because the big one hasn't hit yet. Mind you also, Downey lies along the LAX flight corridor. We've got to be ready for anything, anytime." The city recognizes the indispensable role DFD plays in the city's welfare. Together, the budgets for police and fire alone account for two-thirds of the general fund-an index of the city's priorities. To augment JPCC's operations and further enhance the departments' emergency response capability, Downey has joined the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS), a radio system designed to provide voice and data information across the entire county, which should prove valuable especially in the event of a major disaster. Rounding out the city's arsenal against such threats is its latest creation, Sauter's emergency management function. The father of two, he exudes an easy charm along with a certain calm and confidence, born no doubt of a supportive family (his parents reside in San Clemente), knowledge (requirements for his public administration degree from Cal State-LA are almost complete; he has completed a college-level fire chiefs certification course sponsored by the state fire marshal's office), solid experience, and unwavering dedication to the fire service. His 22-year old married daughter Amanda six months ago presented him and his wife, Gail, with twin boys-Turner and Tyler. Younger daughter Alixandra attends CSU-Long Beach. Chief Turner will further articulate his vision for the department in two weeks, at the second installment of the City Council Priority Workshop. No dramatic announcements are anticipated, a sure sign that all systems are go at the department. "I enjoy what I do, serving the people," he says. "And I'm having fun." ********** Published: March 6, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 46