Interview: Benicia Fire Chief Jim Lydon
The legend of Batman follows Jim Lydon.
He got the nickname while working for the San Rafael Fire Department. A co-worker slapped a Batman sticker on Jim’s truck because he often was the first one to reach a call.
That tradition continued after he became Benicia’s fire chief in 2013. Jim was the first one on the scene when a fire broke out at Washington House in April 2016.
“I was at the car show that day,” Jim recalls. “By the time the engine arrived, there was some guy in shorts with a hat already there, telling people what to do.”
Jim, 52, grew up in Marin County and was introduced to firefighting through the Boy Scout’s fire explorer program. He was hired as a San Rafael Fire Department dispatcher at age 16 and became a firefighter at 21. “Things have changed now,” he says, chuckling at the memory of how his career began.
He was named interim city manager in February, so he spends most of his time at City Hall these days. He remains the fire chief but daily fire operations are managed by others during the interim.
As fire chief, Jim oversees a department with 33 employees and an annual budget of about $8 million. Firefighters respond to medical emergencies, hazardous materials spills, rescues and fires. “We wear lots of hats. About 60 to 70 percent of our calls are medical. We see people at their worst times.”
The department also offers courses to the public on emergency response and fire prevention.
In addition to degrees in fire technology and fire administration, Jim earned a master’s in organizational leadership. He and his wife share homes in Benicia, Novato and San Diego.
Did you always want to be a firefighter? I wasn’t one of those kids that wanted to be a firefighter all their life. Firefighting isn’t a family tradition. But from the time of being about Little League age, Boy Scout age, I knew several firefighters because they were involved with those programs. One leader told me about the fire explorer program and I started at age 14.
When did you know you wanted to be a fire chief? I didn’t see myself as a fire chief 15, 20 years ago. But I always prepared myself for the next step.
When I became a fire captain, I took a look at the battalion chief requirements: What are the education requirements? What are the training requirements? I always followed the philosophy to be prepared for the next level. I always wanted to be able to go to the dance, even if I decided I didn’t want to go. Being prepared for the next level was the ticket to the dance. …
I was getting close to retirement, and I thought if don’t give it a shot as chief, I may feel there was something I didn’t do.
How has your time in the city manager’s office affected your work as chief? I’m learning a lot. I’ve never been involved with public works or community development before. I know code enforcement but I’ve never worked with the historical element parts. I’ve learned there’s a lot more to finance than managing your budget.
These are great experiences and exposures. When I meet with other fire chiefs, I tell them that when you go to these meetings with city staff, pay attention—they might be saying something important.
How does the city prepare for emergency situations? In the last couple of years, we’ve done a lot of training and we’ve modernized the technology in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center). We do these so people will feel comfortable working in the EOC. We can have representatives from the library, community services and other departments working there if it’s a full emergency. There are things they bring to the table, things like community service workers being very good at organizational skills and finding emergency housing if that’s needed.
What do you enjoy most about being fire chief? The thing I enjoy the best is working individually with people in the department who want to grow in their careers, either by rising through the ranks or expanding their position. We have an opportunity to have a unique conversation about life and their goals.
I also like being out in the field. When I’m at the fire station full-time, I assume emergency responsibility at least one day a week. I still enjoy going out to emergencies and providing management.
What was the biggest surprise when you joined the Benicia department? They don’t always tell you everything (chuckling). The phrase I coined was, “That wasn’t in the brochure.”
The biggest difference is the culture I came from is different from the culture here. Sometimes it works and sometimes I try to change the culture here.
I started on April 15, 2013, and I’d been here three weeks when I got a call at 2am. We’d had a series of small, nuisance fires and a volunteer firefighter for our department had been arrested for arson.
Then in July, Crude by Rail started.
We also had some equipment issues to deal with. The department had bought a used ladder truck and it wasn’t working properly. We’ve been relying on other agencies for a ladder truck for the past few years. But we just had staff return from a manufacturer in Nebraska and within a year we’ll have some brand-new equipment to serve the community.
None of that was in the brochure.
What new equipment is the city getting? We’re getting a ladder truck. It’s really a combination vehicle because it also carries water and has pumping capability. We’re also getting a new fire engine and two new wildland engines. These will position the department in terms of equipment for the next 15 to 20 years.
What programs does Benicia Fire offer to prepare the public for emergencies? We’re starting a new program called Get Ready. It’s a two-and-a-half hour program that covers the basics like how to turn off the gas in an emergency. We had our first session in January. We also have the full BERT (Benicia Emergency Response Team) training that goes into more depth. We also offer CPR classes. (For info on Benicia Fire programs, go to the Fire & Life Safety page and the Volunteer Services page on the department web site.)
Another key thing we’re doing to reach out to the public is increasing our presence on social media. We’re to share information out through Facebook and Twitter.
How does the city’s new emergency notification system work? We had a siren system for years, but about six months ago began Alert Benicia. The system allows us to send text messages or email to people when there’s an emergency. If you’re away from home, you can find out that something is going on here at home.
What would you do if you weren’t doing this? No idea. I spent 12 years as a general contractor. In the 1980s, all the firefighters had a side job. We had the time off and firefighters weren’t paid that well then. Some did construction work, some were truck drivers or whatever. I got my contractor’s license and did residential remodeling. I ran the business myself. I learned about organizing work crews, developing project timelines . …
In the early 2000s, I was promoted to fire captain and having a second job was not necessary. And really I couldn’t have done both. There was a point in time when I enjoyed construction, but now I see it as work.
What are you passionate about? Helping others. Service to others is what we do and what I grew up around.
What’s next for you? At some point down the road I plan to retire. I will probably do some consulting and teaching in the areas I find interesting—leadership in particular. That’s what I envision.
Alt photo text: Benicia Fire Chief Jim Lydon at a Benicia Chamber or Commerce event