Steve Lazenby, Director of Emergency Services for 1-800-BOARDUP of Ventura County, Captain (RET) of Santa Paula Fire Department
How and why did you become a Director of Emergency Services with 1-800-BOARDUP?
I was injured on the job, and after about a year of recovery I worked light duty in city hall continuing my efforts as the city’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. It was my goal to return to the field and get back in my seat on the engine, but I wasn’t making very good progress getting my strength and mobility back. My Chief was aware of the situation. One day while I was at my desk, he gave me a printed email he received about an opening for a Director of Emergency Services in Oxnard, California. I knew that the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the City of Oxnard recently retired and thought that the position listed was to work for the City, and so I called the number. Retired Chief Tony Young, 1-800-BOARDUP’s Deputy National Director, answered. Of course, I didn’t know Tony then and I told him why I had called. He tried to explain the Director position to me, but as soon as I heard a few of the details I told him thanks, but no thanks, and that I wasn’t interested. Over a period of a few weeks, I think I told Tony I wasn’t interested on two or more occasions, but he prevailed. Eventually, I talked to several other Directors on the phone and even spent the day riding with another. I discovered that being a Director of Emergency Services could be a great job.
What did you do prior to becoming a Director?
Of course, I was a firefighter, but over the years my family has owned and operated businesses including a trucking business, refuse collection service, and several recycling centers. While I was an active firefighter, I was the city’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and CERT instructor and coordinator. I still teach CERT classes all over Ventura County. In the absence of any other hobbies, I guess that teaching CERT is my hobby. Teaching CERT has been an outstanding chance to meet people and help prepare them for emergencies. I estimate that over the 15 years that I have been teaching CERT, I have taught more than 4,000 students. Often, I see my former students at the scene of fires and that personal connection with those students has been another great tool that has worked to my advantage when I am meeting and helping fire victims.
How long were you in the fire service and what is the most important thing your career has taught you?
I started my fire service in 1981 as a volunteer. During my 32 years in the Santa Paula Fire Department, we progressed from an all-volunteer department to two full-time, fully staffed, and busy, stations at my retirement. The City of Santa Paula has a proud 115 year history serving our community. My son is a Captain and a 4th generation Santa Paula firefighter. In addition to me, his grandfather and great grandfather on his mother’s side were Santa Paula firefighters. This past May, after 115 years, the Santa Paula Fire Department was absorbed by the Ventura County Fire Protection District and all of the active Santa Paula Department members were hired rank for rank. It is a great move for the department, the crews and the community, but it was very much a bitter-sweet change.
About half of my career was full-time and half was as a volunteer. I remember my volunteer days very fondly. All the years of service have been a great blessing and very rewarding. I learned that providing public service, with a real zest for the job, can be its own reward. As a Director of Emergency Services, I have gained a new and different perspective of the fire service while I stand in the street with fire victims and their neighbors, and I hear their comments as the firefighters do their jobs. Firefighters are heroes and I am honored to have been in that profession.
We’re talking about virtual reality training and drones in this issue. What are your thoughts on the changes in technology to help combat fires?
During my 30-plus years of fire service, I have witnessed amazing changes and progress. For example, when I joined the fire service none of our engines had enclosed cabs and now we have the protection of enclosed, climate and air quality-controlled cabs. The clear majority of calls in most of our communities are related to medical issues and the fire service has adopted well to keep pace with that change. The use of computers and GPS for dispatch, and computers and the internet for logging and sharing information is providing amazing results. It seems possible that soon first-in units may be able to share video or pictures to dispatch and other responding units. Drones may be another tool that will help in size up and gathering fire ground information to plan and carry out fire attack or to search and locate victims in a variety of situations.
We are also talking about the rural firefighter and EMS shortage. If you were to encourage someone to be a firefighter, what would you tell them?
In our area, it has been very difficult to make entry into the fire service. The competition for firefighting jobs is intense. Given the severe fire conditions that we are seeing the past few years, there may be more positions available, but the competition will still be a factor. I would recommend that if someone wants to get in the fire service, stay fit, stay out of trouble, go to school or a fire academy to get the training that an entry level firefighter will be required to have and test everywhere there is an opening and don’t give up.
Lastly, what is your favorite quote or saying you live by, and why?
When friends, family or the fire service personnel ask me about my work I tend to go on and on about the great things that I get to do as part of my job. I explain how helping fire victims is at the top of the list, but in addition, I get to support charity and other worthy causes, I visit fire stations and get to see the fire crews out at the scene of fires and other incidents and feel like I am still part of the fire service. I usually conclude by telling them “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it”.