The Nogales Fire Department was cleared to implement a reorganization that will create three battalion chiefs below its top official, after the mayor and city council approved Chief Jeff Sargent’s plan at a meeting last Wednesday.
In a presentation at the council’s Jan. 6 study session, Sargent said the move will streamline communication in the department and that scheduling under the new structure will mean there’s an administrator on duty 24 hours per day.
The battalion chief jobs will replace the current designations of assistant chief, fire marshal and EMS division chief.
Sargent added that the battalion chiefs will be groomed with an eye towards preparing one to take over his job when he’s ready for retirement in approximately 15 years.
“I really want to have a succession plan built up to where it’s a hard decision for the council at that time to determine who will be the next chief,” Sargent said.
The plan calls for the current fire marshal, Jeff Polcari, and EMS division chief Gerry Castro, to become battalion chiefs. The department’s assistant chief job is currently vacant and Sargent indicated that the third battalion chief position will be filled by application.
Castro, the EMS coordinator, will earn a $75,000 salary. The other two battalion chiefs will earn $70,000. Council documents stated that, under the previous pay structure, some captains were earning more than their higher-ups in the EMS division chief and fire marshal role.
Sargent said the command staff changes would be “budget neutral” for the department.
Sargent was brought on to helm NFD in August 2019 after the former chief resigned under unexplained circumstances.
He became the department’s third leader – all brought in from other districts – since longtime NFD firefighter Hector Robles stepped down from the department’s top job in 2015.
“Is everybody in the department excited about all the changes” to NFD’s ranks? Councilman Jose “Joe” Diaz asked the chief on Wednesday.
“We’re never going to make everybody happy,” Sargent replied. “If I wake up and I roll out of the bed on the right side, someone makes an anonymous phone call. If I wake up and I roll out of bed on the left side, you get an anonymous email.”
At a meeting late last year, city elected officials mentioned having received an unsigned letter complaining about Sargent’s leadership at NFD. However, Mayor Arturo Garino quickly dismissed it due to the fact it had been submitted anonymously.
But in response to Diaz’s question, the chief told the mayor and council that a “majority” of staffers were on board with the plans.
Sargent also said the department was planning to add some new firefighters to its ranks by training them in-house at a “green academy” – a training program for recruits that haven’t earned firefighting credentials elsewhere. He said the goal was to bring on employees with ties to the local area, because staff hired from outside tend to leave the department quickly.