Gil Dong
Gil Dong: Berkeley’s newly appointed Fire Chief
Gil Dong: Berkeley’s newly appointed Fire Chief

Gil Dong, who was yesterday named Berkeley’s new fire chief, says he always wanted be a firefighter. When he was a first-grader in San Francisco he pulled the fire alarm at his school so he could impress his friends. He asked them if they wanted to see a fire engine and said he could get one to come.

And so it did.

“I got into big trouble with my parents,” he said in a sit-down interview with Berkeleyside last week. “But that was the first sign that I was destined to become a firefighter.”

There were other indicators. In August 1978, Dong, who was then 14, witnessed paramedics from the South San Francisco Fire Department save his father’s life after he went into cardiac arrest. He knew the crew personally because, at the time, he was taking a CPR class with them on Saturdays.

“From that point on I knew I needed to become a paramedic,” he said — although he is the first to admit he didn’t have the physique typically associated with firefighters. “I was a skinny kid, not your stereotypical athletic type who becomes a firefighter.”

Dong, who joined the Berkeley Fire Department in 1990 as a firefighter-paramedic and has been deputy fire chief since 2007, takes over from former Fire Chief Debra Pryor who retired Dec. 28. Dong has been serving as interim chief since then.

At the Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday where Dong’s appointment became official, Jim Geissinger, president of the Berkeley Fire Fighters Association, said Dong, “worked his way up through the ranks. He knows the inner workings of the department, and can flow seamlessly into the future. He has a very good understanding of labor management relations. He’s approachable. He could step into any one of the stations and work with all of the crews.”

Gil Dong at CERT event by Mark Coplan
Gil Dong talking at Berkeley’s Citywide Emergency Exercise on April 27. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD
Gil Dong talking at Berkeley’s Citywide Emergency Exercise on April 27. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

In his new job, Dong will oversee 134 staff members and be in charge of a $34 million budget. His annual salary is $198,132. The Fire Department handled 13,900 calls in 2012, 60% of which were for medical assistance.

He says his priorities as he takes on the new responsibilities are threefold: training, emergency preparedness, and maintaining infrastructure and equipment. He has already helped create a nine-goal plan for the latter task.

On the training issue he said: “Fifty-two percent of our suppression staff have less than 10 years. We are a fairly young department which means they don’t have experience with a number of fires. Which means that in order to do our job we have to train a lot and that’s a key priority for us. Most of our command staff are in acting positions or on probation.” He explained that this is largely due to retirements and change. “People are learning to do their jobs so for us to effective we need to provide training and resources,” he said.

Dong has been actively involved in orchestrating the city’s emergency preparedness for many years. In 2005, after he was promoted to assistant fire chief, he served as fire marshall and Office of Emergency Services manager.

He says Berkeley does a good job in this area. “Berkeley is a very educated and aware community. They live on the Hayward Fault and regular earthquakes are a trigger that reminds them they could have a big one at any time.” He says the city’s preparedness programs have proved successful. “Our CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) classes are full. If you look at participation in our city disaster drills, last year we had 900, this year we had over 2,000 participate.”

One of the items on his immediate agenda is seeking a grant, with two other departments, for a public safety boat for Berkeley. “It increases our ability to do water rescues and fire suppression as well as environmental protection of the Marina and bayside,” he said. The department receives an average of 18 calls a year for water rescues. Currently, crews suit up and go into the water, and sometimes get help from private boats. Mutual aid is hard to come by as Oakland doesn’t staff its boat, the Coast Guard is scaling back due to budget cuts, and a response from the Richmond boat, the nearest to Berkeley, can entail a 20-30 minute delay given the distance involved.

Asked to describe his leadership style, Dong said he is a “learner.” “My goal is to create a learning organization. I believe in training people to do things and to know why they are doing it.” He adds that he always makes times to visit fire stations and his counterparts in other departments, whether it’s the police or the planning department.

“I think it’s important to understand the process, how government works. It makes all services better,” he said.

Dong, the first in his family to be a firefighter, is also the highest ranking Asian-American chief officer to serve the Berkeley Fire Department.

On his official appointment at the Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday night, Dong said: “I am so honored. I am humbled to serve this city. Our team is going to be doing great things. We’re going to do all the work you’ve tasked us to do, and we’ll continue to serve the city with great honor and pride.”

And he concedes that life has a way of coming full circle. Asked how he feels about the times the Berkeley Fire Department is called out to Berkeley High School when pranksters set off the fire alarms, he said: “I get mad at the kids who who pull the alarms at the campus. But I learned from that experience.”

Berkeley Fire Chief retires after 27 years with many firsts (12.28.12)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...