Jeffery Sargent started as chief of the Nogales Fire Department on Aug. 5. Sargent has spent most of his career in Southern Arizona with the Rural/Metro Corporation, a private fire department where he worked as an EMT and later became a manager. He replaces former NFD Chief Mike McKearney, who stepped down in March, and is the third new chief since Hector Robles left the job in 2015. The NI sat down with Sargent last month to talk about his first few weeks and his plans for the new job.
What have your first three weeks on the job been like?
“It’s been like drinking from a fire hose, to a certain extent. Lots going on in a short period of time. The city has approved some purchases of equipment and have us on a pretty short deadline of getting them our recommendations on what we want to purchase. So the last couple weeks have been talking to engine manufacturers, having discussions with the crews about what we really need, as opposed to what we really want.”
“EMS and fire, everywhere you go, is unique to that location, there’s not one cookie-cutter model. And so you get in here and you just try to learn the idiosyncrasies of how it works.”
What made you interested in this position?
Sargent noted that he has lived and worked in Arizona since the 1990s and has family in Southern Arizona, but moved to Skagit County, Wash., for a job in 2017.
“My parents are in their early 70s, and you know, my dad coming up (to Washington state), the winter weather wasn’t great for him. So between that, my middle son getting engaged, and grandkids maybe coming soon, those are some of the things that made me start looking.”
“What really sold me on Nogales was the police chief and the crews when they did the second interview. The second interview was conducted by three employees and it was a great conversation. You could tell that they were invested. You could tell that they wanted to help develop what was going on.”
“There’s the border issues, there’s the need, I think the city’s talking about expansion and growing with the annexations or out with the golf course area, so there’s a lot going on.”
What are your goals or issues that you’re interested in addressing?
“My main objective is to make sure that we know why we’re doing what we’re doing… If you look around, you’ll see umpteen different logos on doors and fire trucks and uniforms and online, and it’s just been this kind of progression of changing identity. It goes all the way to the root of, ‘Who are we, and why are we that?’ … I just want to make sure that we know who we are, and we know why we’re doing what we do, and we have buy-in from everybody on it.”
“There’s things that we have to do looking at health and safety for firefighters. If you pay any attention to those kind of things, the last few years have been depression, suicide, post-traumatic stress, cancer, fatigue… We’ve got to be able to meet the current health and safety (standards) of the fire service, but also modify that to do it with the size of the department that we are.”
How much of your job is on the business side and how much on day-to-day operations?
Sargent said that the assistant chief (William Sanchez) is primarily in charge of operations and the EMS Division is overseen by Gerry Castro.
“Ultimately it all rolls up here (to the chief), but as far as the day-to-day making sure the schedule’s full, that’s either at the captain level or the assistant chief level.”
Why does a fire engine go out on every call, even if it’s medical-related? Is that wasteful?
“Given the current dispatch scenario it’s not really wasteful, it’s what you have to do with the current model.”
Sargent said that Nogales does not use a prioritization system that is common in other fire districts called EMD, or Emergency Medical Dispatch.
“A lot of scenarios, once you have that (EMD system) in place, you won’t see multiple apparatus responding, but because we don’t have that system in place right now, you’re kind of erring on the side of making sure you have the right resources on scene.”
You haven’t worked as a firefighter. Do you think that presents some unique challenges in your role?
“If I had had no experience with fire departments prior to what I’m doing now, it could be a problem.”
Sargent said that he started off his career working as an EMT and eventually became a regional manager at the Rural/Metro Corporation, handling the private fire department’s operations across four states and several locations in Arizona including Maricopa County, Pima County and Yuma.
“If you want me to pump an engine, that’s probably not the skill set they hired me for because I have not done it. But purchasing fire trucks, managing day-to-day operations, making sure that we’re meeting the current requirements, I have no problems with any of that stuff and I’ve pretty much been doing that for years… Although I’ve never professionally put out a fire, I can tell you that I’m pretty confident in the grand scheme of things of what I’m doing.”
Tell me about your approach to public outreach.
Sargent noted that the department is looking for a new spokesperson after the previous spokeswoman, Marcela Hammond, left her post at the beginning of August. He said that one thing he wants the new hire to do is look at the department’s community-based paramedicine program, which he said had lost grant funding.
“There’s also things that we need to do as far as integrating with the schools… There’s a lot of people who used to work for Nogales and now work other places because they’ve moved from here. If we’re going to be that department where people get their start, then we need to figure out how we can help the local people get their start, and so outreaching to the schools and getting people interested in fire and ambulance positions at a younger age, showing them some way, a career path, I think is important to what we do, and we really don’t have that now.”
“A lot of people think, (firefighters) just show up to work, hangout for 24 hours, don’t really do anything unless there’s a call, but there’s way more things that happen. And that’s part of the whole outreach concept once we get moving.”