Keith Aggson officially took over as the city of San Luis Obispo’s new Fire Chief on March 7.
Serving with the Department as Deputy Chief since 2017, Aggson is about as local a pick as they come for continuity of leadership. He’s also been acting as Chief on interim assignment Since Garret Olson’s retirement in October of 2018.
Aggson’s grandfather first moved to Morro Bay for infantry training during World War II, and the family had a glass-working studio in San Luis Obispo for many years. The future chief was born at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center but his parents moved to Atascadero with him during the building boom of the 1980s where he finished school and got the example, from a neighbor, of going into public safety as a career.
Starting out part-time in 1988, his resume starts in earnest with a fulltime job as a firefighter and paramedic in 1990 with the Atascadero City Department where he quickly climbed the ranks, moving onto the Paso Robles City Fire Department as Battalion Chief of Operations and Fire Marshal.
He also served simultaneously as the Interim Fire Chief for the Templeton Community Services District where, he notes, it was technically a weekend job along with his usual responsibilities but verged on being its own 40-hour-a-week assignment.
Wearing hats (fire helmets rather) for multiple roles doesn’t seem to be an issue for him, especially in the modern age of communications where he can start his workday via blue-tooth and speakerphone on the commute from Templeton (where he has a home with his wife Jessica). Indeed, on March 7, while helium filled “Congratulations” balloons still hovered around the ceiling of his office, Aggson continued work on the Department’s strategic plan from the desk he’d had for the last two years at San Luis Obispo’s Fire Station #1 on Santa Barbara Avenue. Lights remained off in the larger Chief’s office with pivot arm computer screen mounts and conference space.
Well caught up on department history and on the job nuances since his arrival in San Luis Obispo, he does take a moment in the interview to note the unique experiences of his career which blended hands-on work with the County’s Hazardous Materials Team, his role as a training officer, and later the higher level planning around fuel reduction and mitigation in a mixed urban and rural setting.
More recent developments have included being an unwitting cover model for the San Jose Mercury News as their photographers captured him from a distance directing personnel during the Mendocino fires. The last two fire seasons being some of California’s busiest to date, the state’s mutual aid agreements have also sent him to Washington, Oregon, and Idaho battling wildfires.
The press statement released by the City of San Luis Obispo City Manager’s office announcing Aggson’s appointment notes his most recent role as being to, “plan, organize, coordinate, and direct emergency and non-emergency daily activities of the organization and provide direction and support emergency scene operations on major incidents. He has also assisted in the development, execution and management of department financial resources and initiated planning and development of the department’s five-year Strategic Plan.”
Since there has not been a recruiting drive to replace the Deputy Chief position yet, partially due to budget restraints, he’s still very much focused on many of the same areas, with attention to that five-year plan, he added on his first day.
“Our number one priority is the level of service we provide to the community,” he notes, adding that it’s all about logistics to get one of their engines out the doors of one of four stations in the City, to the site of a call within four minutes. “The only real advantage we have is that people tend to let us through without stopping, but we can’t really get across town any faster than that due to traffic.”
Minimizing a disaster’s potential to do harm is all about planning, then handling emergencies on a larger scale: floods, fire and earthquakes.
“Earthquakes for us in California are the biggest danger,” he said, “If you think about it, a large-scale earthquake can bring a community to its knees; with all of the other emergencies built into it.”
At present, he said, it takes about a year for a single property to recover from being leveled in a blaze. That’s assuming insurance comes through and there was no loss of life. In the wake of large-scale tragedy like that experienced by the town of Paradise in Northern California, municipal governments, and their Fire Departments are looking at what large-scale recovery would be like.
“Recovery is the last step after preparedness and mitigation,” he said. “We are putting a lot of effort into emergency planning, all three areas, right now.”
With the changing landscape of fire fighting, it’s likely Aggson will spend the rest of his career keeping the San Luis Obispo Department on the right footing.
Plans are in place to add a fifth fire station as new subdivisions are built for long-awaited housing growth. At the same time, he notes, the same succession planning which led to him getting the job will need to be stepped up as 30 percent of the department becomes eligible to retire over the next five years.
“Long term I think this is my final career step,” Aggson said, “So I’m just looking forward to collaborating with [members of] and improving on service [at] all levels of organization.”
He’s got a start in that direction as the academy for new recruits is already backfilling vacancies in the Department. There may be a perpetual budget crunch, but they’d like to be able to have at least one extra man (or woman) onboard to cover absences.
Camas Frank has been a San Luis Obispo County print journalist for over a decade. First drawn to the Central Coast for a stint at Cal Poly, he’s focused on community affairs, people and technology.