ESCONDIDO — It came as a shock to many on the City Council and audience during a recent meeting when it was revealed long-time fire chief Mike Lowry was retiring.
However, Lowry was coaxed back into action due to the transition of newly hired City Manager Graham Mitchell. Mitchell said recently retired City Manager Clay Philips would have hired a new chief, but since Mitchell was set to take over, Philips opted to leave the decision with Mitchell.
Lowry, meanwhile, will resume his duties as the interim chief for less than six months or until a permanent replacement is hired. He officially retired on Dec. 31 and was approved to continue work until June 30.
“In the fire service, it seems like 30 years is the magic number,” Lowry said. “I knew after that point it was going to be a matter of time. At the beginning of the calendar year (2015), I told the city manager (Philips), that this was going to be it.”
According to Mitchell’s report to the city, it is not against state law for public employees to work for public agencies while drawing a retirement, although the law discourages the practice.
In Lowry’s case, however, the Government Code allows employees to return to work for an agency under specific circumstances. A 180-day waiting period is normally required by the code, but can be waived by the agency if a governing body adopts a resolution at a public meeting, which the city council did on Wednesday.
Lowry’s duties will include overseeing the department and providing administrative support to Mitchell. Lowry will also assist with the transition of a new chief and “conduct promotional recruitment whereby candidates will be evaluated.”
Lowry said the final decision of hiring a new chief will likely be done in May or early June. The job is subject to open recruitment, he added.
“During that time, I will continue to manage the department and keep things running smoothly,” Lowry said. “Budget is going to be a big part of what we do for the next fiscal year.”
As for Lowry, the spark into firefighting began as a teenager around 1978-79. From there, he had stops with Alpine Fire District, U.S. Forest Service and in Rancho Santa Fe as a student firefighter before landing a full-time position in Escondido as a fire cadet in 1982.
He became a paramedic in 1984 and like any first responder, Lowry’s career had its fill of gut-wrenching calls to the sublime.
He said his toughest days on the job occurred as a paramedic, both involving children. The first was an accident on Juniper Street where two kids were killed after a car accident. Later in the shift, Lowry responded to a call of a sudden infant death.
After his shift, Lowry went home and immediately cradled his young daughter.
“It was a real bad night,” he said. “When I got home the next day, my wife says I walked right past her, and I had a young daughter at that time, and I picked her up and just held her. Those are the calls that have an impact on you for a long time.”
But with the heartbreaking, comes the good. Throughout his career, Lowry delivered seven babies in addition to the countless individuals who he helped along the way.
He also assisted with Hurricane Rita efforts in 2005 in Houston, when the fourth-most devastating storm.
However, it is the friendships and bonds developed through the years with his fellow firefighters are what Lowry will cherish.
“There’s no doubt, the best memory is the people you work with,” he said. “Making a difference in people’s lives and the community. I remember in Alpine going on my first CPR. As you go through the ranks, the people you meet continues to grow and expand. The city of Escondido has been a great place to work.”
His career progressed in 1991 when he was promoted to fire engineer and in December of 1991 was promoted to fire captain.
As captain, his responsibilities included the day-to-day operations of the fire house. Ten years later, he took over as division chief, where he was a training officer, among other aspects.
He also served as fire marshall, fire prevention and operations before taking the top job in 2008 after the retirement of Dick Reed.
“I fell in love with as a career,” Lowry said of his early days. “Things kind of kept going.”
Once he finally hangs it up, Lowry intends and spending time with his family, traveling — Alaska is a must see — and doing missionary work with his church.