CARLSBAD — One flame is dimming, while another is burning bright.
Carlsbad Fire Department Chief Mike Davis is in his last two weeks with the department, while Mike Calderwood is waiting to take the top spot. Davis’ last day is July 11.
Davis, 49, said “it’s time” to step away from the only career he’s known, but said the department is in such a good place he’s more than confident the tight-knit crews are in positions to succeed.
Additionally, he has all the confidence in Calderwood, 43, who has the demeanor, leadership skills and know-how to lead the department.
As for the succession, Davis said it starts from the time a new hire comes on board and is constantly monitored to ensure smooth transitions and promotions.
“It’s been an honor to serve this community,” Davis said. “And a pleasure. This team will do anything for this community. Mike (Calderwood) brings an unbelievable work ethic, he is highly intelligent, (an) out of the box thinker and has a passion for the fire service.”
Davis began his career in the fire service nearly 30 years ago, first in EMS in El Cajon with a spell in San Diego before landing in Carlsbad in 1990. He credits former El Cajon Chief Jim Baker as a mentor and someone who shaped his career.
When Davis first started in Carlsbad, the city had a population of 42,000 and the department responded to just 3,000 calls per year. Fast forward 28 years, the city has about 115,000 residents and the fire department answers 13,000 calls annually, 80 percent which are EMS calls.
For Davis, though, there is no better career. Serving the community, he said, has been an honor, even through tragedy, which he has experienced on hundreds of occasions. It’s the empathetic and sympathetic touch of firefighters helping those through the worst days of their lives that is so rewarding.
The continuing evolution
The fire department is responsible for responding and training for many scenarios. For example, when Davis began it was fires and car accidents and the like, but as the world moves forward, so does each department.
Soon firefighters were responding to more “technical” rescues, such as at construction sites and have training exercises now for weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
Yet another evolution has been the training of firefighters in EMS, Davis said. Now, they have become an extension of the emergency room, improving the chances of survival from a catastrophic event.
“We’ve had to self-learn to protect people and the environment,” he added.
But Davis’ No. 1 priority was always the safety of his crews, especially over the past several years battling massive blazes all over the state including the 2014 Poinsettia Fire.
May 14, 2014, was the hardest day on the job in his illustrious career, Davis said. One fatality (a transient man) occurred and eight homes burned and four apartments (the building had to be demolished) and two commercial buildings were lost.
The fire, in the middle of the city, could have been much worse as crews had to battle 100 years of illegal dumping with hazardous materials, paint cans exploding, nails blowing out tires on the fire trucks.
However, a day later when the blaze was contained was Davis’ best day. The department cooked dinner for the victims and connected with them on a personal level.
“We fed people who lost everything,” he remembered. “You see people in their worst moment. Helping someone through that gives you a connection with a human being you can’t get in any other (work) environment.”
Into the future
Calderwood, meanwhile, is excited and thrilled he was tapped for the position. However, he, along with Davis, is quick to point to the department’s leadership team and City Council for the success of the department.
One reason, Davis said, is administrative decisions are not made in a vacuum. It’s using the collective knowledge of the battalion and division chiefs to make the best decisions in the moment and for the future. The council, meanwhile, puts residents’ safety at the top, which allows the Carlsbad Fire Department to secure the best equipment available. For example, a new fire engine will be ready to be in service in about two weeks and a new ladder truck will be available in two years.
Calderwood, though, will soon be responsible for the 90-person department and a $23 million budget.
“It’s a family environment,” he said. “There is a bond and it’s up to the leaders to ensure they are taking care of our family. I want to develop men and women into better adults. My goal is to ensure everybody in the fire department reaches their highest potential.”
Calderwood started his career in 1998 in Pismo Beach. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara and nearly enrolled in law school.
However, a “profound” personal experience with a local fire department when he was a teenager altered his path. He opted to pass on law school and joined the fire service.
After several years in Pismo Beach, which was then absorbed into CalFire, he worked in Escondido for a stint before moving to the Carlsbad Fire Department in 2003. He is married to Christy Calderwood, a lieutenant with the Carlsbad Police Department, and they have two children.
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Mike Calderwood said of his wife.
Davis, meanwhile, plans to spend time with wife, two college-aged daughters and on his surfboard before returning to the workforce.
Steve Puterski covers Carlsbad and Vista. For tips or story ideas, contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @StevePuterski.