Late last month, Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Eli Iskow put on his uniform for the final time. A decorated county firefighter and paramedic for the past 21 years, Iskow, with his trademark mustache and no-nonsense approach, had arguably become the department’s most public personality in recent years, working as the public information officer (PIO) since 2007 and providing round-the clock crucial information for media types during the Zaca, Gap, and Tea fires. Now, after 33 years of answering the most desperate calls for help, the 56-year-old firefighter is waking up to a world of yard work, house repairs, and more time with his family. “It’s good, but it definitely feels pretty weird,” laughed Iskow earlier this week.
Long before he found himself being peppered by questions from reporters, Iskow was just the type of hero you wanted to see when the situation called for one. Iskow-who began as a paramedic in Tuscon, Arizona, in 1973 before transferring to Mammoth Lakes in 1981 and finally getting a gig in Santa Barbara in 1988-is reluctant to talk about himself, even though he’s one of a handful of people in the county ever to receive a Medal of Valor. In 1992, after a construction worker fell down an 80-foot-deep dry well, Iskow was lowered into the darkness to drag the guy out-a lifesaving feat that Deputy County Fire Chief Chris Hahn described recently as “pretty spooky and probably not the way we would do it today,” because of the high risk involved. When asked about the rescue last month, Iskow said simply, “It was a huge team effort-I got a lot of credit for something that I was just a small part of.” Hahn was less understated in his praise, summing up Iskow’s career by saying, “Eli has been a great, great firefighter for the County of Santa Barbara for a long time,” before adding with a genuine tone of respect, “and he just did a tremendous job as our PIO.”
The role of any PIO is a linchpin in a well-executed media machine. Without PIOs, questions often go unanswered and news stories end up inaccurate or never told at all. In his time as PIO, Iskow, much like his earlier years along the front lines of firefighting, set a high standard. Not only was he practically always available for reporters even during the most dire of circumstances-he admitted he “hasn’t had too many nights off in the past two years”-but he often would update the media hotline with essential information from the front lines long before it was available anywhere else-a previously unheard-of practice that proved invaluable during the early hours of wildfires. Furthermore, Iskow frequently hauled fire hose or other emergency equipment right alongside first responders when arriving on the scene. Unable and unwilling to lose his firehouse mindset even though he technically held an administrative position, Iskow said, “Basically, I went to every call I could go to.”
To hear him tell it, Iskow could have worked another couple of years, as he was not yet “completely maxed out” on the county’s pay scale. But with the current train wreck of an economy forcing contract renegotiations between firefighters and the county, a pay-raise freeze would prevent Iskow from receiving the amount of money he’ll be making when his retirement plan’s cost-of-living adjustment kicks in. Add to that a battered body from three decades of long hours on the frontlines and Iskow said his decision to hang up his hose was a no-brainer, even with his good friend Tom Franklin recently becoming County Fire Chief. “I love my job and the guys I work with-they are some of the best-but I’m completely exhausted and pretty beat up,” he said. “As much as I’d like to [stick around], it just doesn’t make too much sense.”