With new fire chief, Pasadena tries to rebound from leadership controversy
Pasadena’s new fire chief, Chad Augustin, has been on the job since February, and would just as well quietly continue going about the business of running his department.
But on Thursday, June 10, he’ll be officially sworn in, marking a more formal introduction to a community the 48-year-old says he is excited to serve.
“I feel like I’ve won the lottery being here,” said Augustin, gearing up for the City Hall ceremony he and his wife, Sandra — set to finally move to the city next week — will attend with family. Mindful of pandemic concerns, his mom and dad will get a recording of the moment.
“Pasadena is such a great community, and I feel fortunate and truly believe that the direction we’re going is going to be a win for everyone,” he said.
That direction is forward, Augustin said, to a future of bolstered morale for a department still absorbing the impacts of a recent controversial leadership shakeup. It’s also a future of training, recruiting — and retaining — a workforce that wants to stay in Pasadena.
Where he comes from
Once an avid bodybuilder in his 20s who now trains heavily in CrossFit, Augustin comes from the much larger Sacramento Fire Department. He was tapped for the position in January after a four-month search, culled from pool of 40 applicants.
Augustin sees Pasadena in a unique position. There’s the wildlands urban interface, and the fire dangers it brings. There are the multiple and many “assets” of the city — old, often architecturally significant homes — the Rose Bowl Stadium and parade, all of which require a staff of 50 firefighters at the ready.
For a smaller city, he said, he’s been impressed so far with how engineers captains and rank-and-file firefighters come together in various department programs. “Because it’s small, it’s got to be all-hands on deck,” he said, adding that he’s been on a “listening tour” at stations, to hear out staff and listen to concerns about the department’s strengths and weaknesses.
He’s walking into a department that was hit by controversy in its leadership ranks in recent years, which led to the spot being open in the first place.
Whom he replaced
In early 2020 — just as the pandemic gripped the world — then-Chief Bertral Washington announced he was retiring after a controversial reassignment to the City Manager’s Office led to weeks of protests at City Hall.
Many critics slammed the reassignment, sounding off on the lack of diversity across the city’s top leadership posts after Washington clashed with the firefighter’s union over hiring. Washington was seen at the time as one of a relatively few African American leaders in top city positions, prompting the scorn of several in the city’s Black community.
At the time, councilmen Tyron Hampton and John J. Kennedy criticized City Manager Steve Mermell for removing the chief. Although the city manager is responsible for hiring and firing decisions, the councilmen threatened the city’s top executive, suggesting he could be replaced for his decision on Washington.
With a new chief being sworn in, Kennedy said he has no issues with this chief, but he remains critical of Mermell’s actions and city hiring practices.
“Nothing has changed as it relates to my desire to see more African Americans at the top of the organization under the current city manger,” he said, adding that the process that led to hiring Augustin should have included a community panel, more in line with a more public process used to hire police Chief John Perez.
‘A bad taste’
“It leaves a bad taste in my mouth in terms of process,” he said.
Mermell has defended his hiring practices, saying the city has more proportional minority representation than the city as a whole. The process to hire Augustin did include a community survey, inviting residents to offer feedback on a new chief through the city’s website, according to a report distributed to the council.
Kennedy said Washington still lives in the city.
“I believe he is doing well” and “has not missed a beat,” Kennedy said. “He left the city of Pasadena with his head held up high. He’s got an extraordinary future in the fire science executive industry. Our community is fortunate to still have him as a part of it.”
But Kennedy also had hopes for Augustin and the department.
“Whether the process in the selection of the current fire chief was not the best, it is one council member’s expectation to make our fire department the best fire department in the state of California, with best practices, and in making sure we support in advance the will of the council for diversity — particularly African Americans, Latinos and women,” Kennedy said. “If he does that, his appointment as the fire chief will prove to be an excellent decision.”
Augustin’s 20 years of experience ranges from fire prevention to emergency medical services and training, bolstered by his master’s degree in legal studies from the University of Arizona, and a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from Waldorf University.
Staffing and managing a department that better reflects the community it serves is top on his list, Augustin said.
Sacramento’s department, he noted, was a leader in hiring women, but it can be a tenuous hold if several retire at the same time. In such cases, leaders have to think and plan ahead.
Augustin wants to double the number of women in the department’s frontline firefighting ranks from seven to 14 in two to three years.
It will be a challenge. With larger county and city departments next door in Los Angeles, it’s tough to hold onto recruits. Augustin, whose salary currently sits at $245,430, is dealing with 25 vacancies across all ranks, and in a 160-member department, 25 is a “big number,” he said. Even more plan to retire by year’s end.
Augustin and his team are already thinking up ways to be “creative” and to try and keep its firefighters — ranging from reducing probationary periods (so young firefighters get job security sooner) to community relations, and connections with middle schoolers who would be interested in a career in the fire service.
“We are a much better department when we reflect the community we serve,” he said.