Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Michael Dyer will retire in January on the Friday after his 55th birthday, he announced on Monday, which marked five years and one day since he took the helm of the department and more than 36 years since he embarked on his public-safety career.
“This job — you sleep with a cell phone next to your head 24/7,” Dyer said. “There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with it, especially with the area that we have here. My family has sacrificed over the years, and my kids are grown. I want to help them enter the next phase of their life and do some traveling myself.” Dyer said the decision also partly stemmed from tragedy in his personal life and over the course of his professional life as well. “I think my brother passing away at 49 and going to funerals here — we’re not immortal,” he said. “I know how fragile life is.”
Still, Dyer — who made his decision known early to allow the county ample time to find his replacement — said his department has a lengthy to-do list to tackle in the next several months. “I don’t think I’m going to be a lame duck of anything,” he said.
In reflecting on his tenure in Santa Barbara, Dyer lauded the department’s growing financial stability, citing in particular the county’s move in 2012 to shift a greater percentage of property tax revenues to the then-struggling department. Before the change, his department was only receiving about 11 percent, compared to other jurisdictions’ allocations of upward of 15 percent. “We were woefully underfunded,” Dyer said.
But at the 2014-2015 budget deliberations earlier this year, Dyer pointed to a department — with a $56 million operating budget — now looking at a “cautiously optimistic” financial horizon. Budget cuts endured during the recession caused some “critical positions” to be lost — the number dropped from a high of 285 full-time jobs in 2009-2010 to 239 last year — but Dyer added that the department is now planning for a “bright future,” with goals including “laying the foundation for future positions” and strengthening the EMT and paramedic programs.
The biggest challenge will likely remain dealing with the drought, Dyer said, but some pending projects will aid that fight. Thanks to a $300,000 donation from Montecito billionaire Craig McCaw earlier this summer, the department has a plan in the works — it hinges on a vote by the supervisors later this month — to allow a helicopter to be stationed and land at the Santa Barbara Airport. And in the Mission Canyon neighborhood, a public-private venture between the county and Southern California Edison may see early-warning devices placed atop towers to read changes in humidity, temperature, and wind, with any smoke or flames alerting fire stations and dispatch centers. “It will give us precious seconds and minutes to evacuate communities,” Dyer said.
Before being selected by the supervisors in August 2009, Dyer — who is from Los Angeles and holds a master’s degree in public administration from Cal State-Northridge — loomed large in the Los Angeles County Fire Department, holding the positions of assistant fire chief, battalion chief, fire captain, and firefighter. He began his career in 1978 as a lifeguard, a job he held for eight years. (According to the county’s human resources director, Jeri Muth, Dyer’s salary clocks in at $201,925; what his exact pension from Santa Barbara County will be remains unclear at this time, Muth added, as Dyer established a reciprocity agreement between here and Los Angeles County.)
He started his Santa Barbara County career on the heels of the Tea and Jesusita fires and just a week before the La Brea Fire hit, Dyer said, saying that experience taught him two things quickly about fighting fires on the American Riviera. “We have the finest firefighters in the world in Santa Barbara,” he said. “We have a historically catastrophic region that we have to continuously be vigilant in making sure our firefighters have the latest equipment and training. I think we’ve been able to do that.”
Since accepting his position here, Dyer has lived part-time in Carpinteria and the remainder in Westlake Village, where he said he will shift more of his time during retirement. Spending time abroad also matters to him, he said, expressing excitement at learning Italian and spending a significant chunk of time in Italy, a country he has visited twice. Consultant positions could lure him back into the working world, he said, but would have to “work around” his wanderlust.
In the meantime, Dyer said he is focusing on helping the county find his successor. He frequently praised Deputy Fire Chief Eric Peterson as a potential replacement, adding that the county will likely conduct an open recruitment for the position. Overall, Dyer said he was “excited” for the change — for him and for the department — but that his time in charge will stick with him. “The Board of Supervisors gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to lead this department,” he said. “I’ll be eternally grateful for that.”