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New Fire Chief Discusses Vision for Department : Profile: Now at helm of city's firefighters, Harold Omel is adjusting to being off the front lines, where he has had a passion for the action for 30 years.

January 09, 1994|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — The city's new fire chief is taken aback when asked if he intends to trade his firefighter's uniform for the standard attire of a top administrator--a suit and tie.

For 30 years Harold Omel Jr. has been wearing the Long Beach Fire Department's blue and white, building a reputation as the consummate firefighter.

His popularity with colleagues and city officials swelled to such proportions that, in 1985, Fire Station 1 in downtown Long Beach was named for him.

"And I took so much flak from the troops, I can see why they usually don't do that until you're dead," Omel said, laughing.

Mayor Ernie Kell once suggested Omel would make a good city councilman. But Omel demurred, preferring to live in fire stations around town in 56-hour shifts and serve as a union official.

He was president of the Long Beach Firefighters Assn. for two decades and secretary/treasurer of the 22,000-member California Professional Firefighters union. He surrendered both positions when he moved into management ranks as chief this month.

Fighting the errant blaze has been Omel's passion, he admits, ever since he joined the department in 1964. With little prodding he remembers the big ones: his first two-alarm fire at the old Grant's Department Store. The 500 fire calls in three days during the 1992 riots. The 12-story wall of flames he faced last year in Malibu. As a firefighter, an engineer, a captain and a battalion chief, Omel never left the front.

Sitting in his new chief's office with a view of the harbor and downtown, Omel, 51, said he is still amazed that in his new post, he will be going home every night (he's married with two daughters and three grandchildren). Clearing his personal belongings out of a firehouse after he was elevated to chief on Jan. 1 was one of the hardest things he's done, he said.

Omel discussed his career and new position in an interview with The Times.

*

Question: Did you always want to join the Fire Department?

Answer: Oh, yes. My father was here and I saw he enjoyed going to work every day. He would come home and tell us about the people he helped. He wanted me to be a dentist. I wanted to be a firefighter and started preparing myself in high school, taking practice exams and fire science classes as soon as I could. I was actually hired to the Long Beach Police Department first and worked as a patrolman in 1963. Then I was hired on to the Compton Fire Department, but I always wanted to work here, where I was raised.

Q: Considering the fact that you followed your father into the department, was the recent controversy about nepotism in hiring practices here a surprise? (Seven of 21 recruits initially selected by then-Chief Chris A. Hunter for the city's most recent fire training academy were from families of current firefighters. In the ensuing controversy, five of the candidates were dropped from the list.)

A: Yes. I feel strongly that there's nothing wrong with following in your mother's or father's footsteps. It's prevalent throughout the United States, especially in the fire and police services. As fire chief, I'm going to hire the most qualified person. If we have candidates who are firefighter's sons or daughters and they are the top people on the entrance list, I'm going to hire them.

Q: How about those sons and daughters who are not top people? There was at least one case recently where a candidate, the son of a firefighter, did not rank high on the list and still he was accepted.

A: Well, like I said I'm going to hire the most qualified. Some of those kids, we grew up with them. They're a known quantity. We know their parents, we've seen them grow up and we know exactly what kind of people they are. Sometimes there is an advantage to that.

Q: There was a lot of talk last year, and still is, about services being cut due to the lingering recession. How has the budget affected the department?

A: In the last two years, we've experienced about $3 million in cuts. We've reduced the number of paramedic units. We've eliminated one ladder-truck company. We have eliminated some staff from our fire prevention bureau. We had 100 paramedics, we've cut down to 72. We had 11 paramedic units, we now have eight.

Q: What does that mean for a city that continues to grow? Is it in danger, or was the department previously overstaffed?

A: Neither. We've changed the way we deliver emergency medical services. We have a private ambulance service that now helps us transport and we've put paramedics on some of our engine companies. So, as far as service goes, we haven't cut.

Q: What about response time, has that changed?

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