Sebastian Abdón Ibarra
After shuffling through multiple interim fire chiefs for over two years, the La Verne Fire Department hired Christopher Nigg, former Fire Marshal for Fullerton and Brea, to helm the department.
His first day was August 30.
Nigg stepped in at a challenging time for the city and the fire department.
For more than a year, the department has struggled to recruit and retain fire fighters because of real concerns about adequate funding and equipment, along with personnel issues.
And discussions about disbanding the local department to contract with Los Angeles County are ongoing.
In his first week of office, Nigg said that his priority had been to get to know his new team in the department and get to know their own personal visions for where they hope to see the fire department in the future. He has also met with the department heads of the city, as they will all be working together closely to keep the city running smoothly. Finally, Nigg hopes to find the time to visit the University of La Verne to open those lines of communication.
Nigg said he loves the city of La Verne.
“My first experience with La Verne was when I began my flying career out of Brackett Field Airport,” he said. “Right away when you enter the city, it is hard not to fall in love with its quaintness and typical intimacy of a small town.”
Nigg said he believes the community wants to maintain the local fire department.
“(Nigg) is a very smart individual, very well educated and passionate about the fire service,” said Brandon Coatney, deputy chief of operations at the Fullerton Fire Department.
Coatney has known and worked with Nigg for more than a decade. “He is a wealth of knowledge and he is very passionate about the fire service. He has put everything into his job,” Coatney said.
Coatney said that during his time in Fullerton, Nigg pioneered a number of new programs. The Utility Terrain Vehicle program Nigg brought forward was one of the first in Orange County, and it is a program that has been modeled by other agencies. Coatney said Nigg was promoted to Deputy Chief Fire Marshall at Fullerton and immediately revamped many aspects in fire prevention for the department.
Coatney said one of Nigg’s strengths is seeking opportunities to advance the fire department operationally, but also finding new funding mechanisms to bring new programs to the department.
Recruitment has been one of the items that Nigg has already discussed with the city manager.
Nigg said that recruitment is not just a La Verne problem, fire services across the nation are having trouble with recruitment and retention.
“Everybody is hiring, you can look at every department across the Southland, Nigg said. “So we are looking at that same pool.
“We have to find niches within our department, within our city, and our community that would attract people that would ultimately make our department a destination and ultimately stay there as well,” Nigg said.
Andy Glaze, a fire captain of La Verne Fire Station No. 2 on Wheeler Avenue and president of the La Verne Firefighters’ Association, believes that the city council and city manager are putting the safety of the community at risk with understaffed fire stations and low funding.
Glaze said that the department is down five or six positions at the moment.
Still Glaze is confident that Nigg will be able to positively impact the fire department. Just having a permanent fire chief will be an improvement.
La Verne Mayor Tim Hepburn also hopes that Nigg can help strengthen the fire department.
“He brings new blood, he is younger and he brings the expertise of being in a large fire department,” Hepburn said. “I expect that he can get us back to where we need to be, hiring more people, getting stations reopened and bringing some pride back into our fire department,” Hepburn said.
Hepburn said what set Nigg apart from other candidates was his views for the fire department. He said Nigg’s experience with the Fullerton Fire Department can be a model for what La Verne’s Fire Department can be.
“His expertise in dealing with the staff, with equipment, National Fire Protection Association standards, I think he will be able to suit those needs,” Hepburn said.
Muir Davis, La Verne city council member, also said he believes that Nigg will bring a vision and energy to the fire department.
“He took ownership and responsibility for the department and the community. He showed he was willing to engage with the community and youth,” Davis said.
What really impressed Davis was Nigg’s vision for broadening who can be a firefighter in this community, Davis added.
“Chief Nigg’s appreciation for figuring out how we broaden our potential candidates, our youth and engaging boys and girls to see themselves as possible firefighters or paramedics is something that set him apart,” Davis said.
La Verne council member Wendy Lau said she hopes that Nigg will help alleviate some of the management issues that have plagued the department recently.
“We were looking for someone to rebuild the department to a place where people want to work, where they are excited to be, and bring back employee satisfaction,” Lau said.
She added that finally having stability after previous interims will be a welcome change.
Nigg impressed Lau with his knowledge about the current situation facing the department and its past struggles.
“He came in very knowledgeable and had good responses to interview questions on how his skills and expertise could move us forward,” Lau said.
What impressed Rick Crosby, La Verne council member, about Nigg was his knowledge about recruiting and staffing, which is one of the LVFD’s issues at the moment.
This sentiment was shared by Robin Carder, La Verne council member, who also believes that what will make Nigg a great hire is that he believes in working for a smaller city.
He said he believes in city fire departments because there is a true buy-in for the community.
Sebastián Abdón Ibarra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.