El Cerrito’s new fire chief a national expert in homeland security
By Lou Fancher
During 27 years in fire service Eric Saylors, the El Cerrito-Kensington Fire Department’s new chief, said he has encountered daily lessons in fear, ferocity and fortitude.
From that lived, hands-on experience and steeped as a third-generation firefighter in the industry’s culture, history and traditions, Saylors said he learned to trust people, planning and personal ethics more than perfect equipment or predictable climates. Leaving his post as an assistant fire chief with the Sacramento Fire Department, Saylor became the El Cerrito-Kensington department’s new chief in August.
His firefighting career began in 1995 at the Galt Fire Department in Sacramento County. He moved to the Sacramento Fire Department in 1998, where he rose through the ranks from firefighter/paramedic to engineer, captain and battalion chief before becoming assistant chief in 2021. Born in Grass Valley (Nevada County), he first went to Sacramento to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree in business management from California State University, Sacramento, and later a master’s degree in security studies from Monterey’s Naval Postgraduate School.
Though working full-time, Saylors is now also a University of Southern California doctoral candidate completing his thesis on risk assessment. A published writer, his articles have established him as a national expert in homeland security, active shooter training, fire service metrics and leadership and succession planning. Saylors, 48, is married, and he and his wife have two children, ages 10 and 8. In an interview, he addressed the most obvious question: Why the move to El Cerrito?
“It’s a smaller agency that has the ability to move quicker. I figure I have about seven more years in the field and I’m ambitious about the things I want to accomplish. A program aimed at response to active shooters, in Sacramento, took me five years to implement. I’m intrigued by how fast an agency this size, with three fire stations, can innovate.”
If there are things — there are multitudes — the fire service needs, rapid innovation is tops, because the firefighting environment, both natural and political, is changing.
“We’re getting hotter and drier each year, and politically, since the financial crash of 2008, we’re asked (about) what we add to the community. It’s no longer taken for granted how you right-size a fire department for each community.”
Years ago, Saylors’ great-uncle was a truck captain working for the city of Los Angeles when he mentored Saylors’ father, uncle and aunt into the fire service.
“He (Saylors’ great-uncle) spent most of his time cutting holes in roofs, which used to be constructed with wood. Now it’s plastics,” said Saylors. “Plastics release poisons and burn faster. Flashover (when flames suddenly spread over an area after heating to a flash point) is now about four minutes; it used to be 12.”
Anticipating change, he learned from his great-uncle, is essential, meaning today’s protective equipment is high-tech, but the ability to save victims is shorter and the exposure to toxic chemicals — and cancer rates — has grown exponentially.
His father taught him that everything determining success or failure is about the people.
“New equipment, money, all cause problems. They fail to work or aren’t what you thought they’d be. The only thing that makes it work is the people,” Saylors said. “I had a glove that was missing a thumb for my entire first year, but we always got the job done because our people were motivated, organized and worked as a team.”
Thus began a lifetime of fascination with structured, preemptive planning; well-managed staffing and payroll programs; and high-quality leadership. Alongside these internal functions, external outreach and public awareness have emerged as areas with room for improvement.
Addressing the increasingly common once-in-a-lifetime “career fires,” Saylors said, “I’ve had about 10 of them. This is the aspect we have to innovate our way out of because the problem outweighs its resources. The threat to communities is environmental change that creates fires we’ve never seen before. The biggest failing, not for lack of trying, is public education about how severe the threat is. The solutions of yesterday will not fit 2023.”
Solutions, he proposed, will come from police and fire departments collaborating across regions, developing standard mass casualty incident protocols; coordinating reconciliation stations for updates delivered to families and media during an emergency; and better pay and mental health support for firefighters.
“We’re on the brink of a crisis. We’re unable to attract qualified people into the profession. The number of applicants is 25% of what we saw two years ago. The attrition rate is increasing: Suicide has tripled, cancer is up, the entry pipeline is down. You can be a paramedic or you can go to nursing school or law school. But a fire department wage is $25 an hour; nursing is $90 hour. The new generation is objective versus idealistic, unlike when I joined.”
Recovery plans for firefighters who experience incident trauma and are first on scene and last to leave is crucial, Saylors said, recalling two times he believed he might die on the job.
“One, I was on a roof cutting a hole during the night. It was wet and slippery and my boot started sliding. I don’t really know why it stopped and I didn’t fall into the flames. The other time, I got caught in a flashover in an apartment building. I was searching for two kids. We masked up, I turned a corner, and a flashover ignited all of the particles in the air. A wall of flame came at me. I got behind a recliner, dragged it as cover until a flashover blew me out the front door.”
In El Cerrito specifically, Saylors said he plans to focus on coordinating and pooling resources with Albany, Berkeley and Richmond after conducting what remains of his “listening tour” to get to know the community and conducting research emphasizing wildfires and earthquakes.
“We need to use the same terminology to answer what we’ll do in the event of an earthquake. Wind-driven events: Do we pre-stage, up-staff, add rigs, before an event reaches critical mass? All the agencies in a unified command come together to sort that out.”
Specifically, Saylors said he plans to reinstate Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training that includes moving large animals during disasters; and to create internal documents chronicling the department’s history, core values, operational guidelines and logistics. To relieve stress from work, Saylors said he’ll enjoy mountain biking on East Bay trails in pursuit of “diffuse thinking,” which he said results in his best and most creative ideas.