Alan Ernst, who has served as interim fire chief since early April, was appointed Modesto Fire Department chief at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
After starting his firefighting career with El Dorado County about six years earlier, Ernst joined the Modesto department in 1997. He's held every rank in the department and has extensive experience in training and emergency operations, according to a news release from the city. Ernst was the department training officer as a battalion chief, a shift battalion chief, the support division chief and the operations division chief.
"What I appreciate most about Chief Ernst is his attention, care and passion for fire service," said Joe Lopez, Modesto's interim city manager. "During his time as interim chief, he showed great leadership and innovation, and he's always striving to make improvements. We felt he was the best person for the job."
Ernst said an immediate goal as chief is to secure funding to keep Engine Company 11 in service at Station 11. That company was eliminated in a 2011 budget reduction but returned in April thanks to a grant awarded to the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The $2.2 million SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant covers the cost of hiring nine firefighters for two years.
When the grant expires in 2019, the city would have to assume the cost to keep the engine company in service. "My hope is that we can work with the city, work with other departments efficiently, and work on shared services with other agencies to find means to allow the city to maintain the staffing," he said.
Lopez said the city will continue to explore the SAFER grant and other approaches to maintain the department's level of service and keep the engine company. Ernst "has my support" in those efforts, he said.
Another of Ernst's goals is to provide stable leadership to the department, he said. "My intent is to retire from this organization, and I have at least six years before I'm eligible to retire," the 44-year-old said. "I want to provide long-term stability in this position and look at what we can do to support the best level of service available to the city. I'm very interested in resource sharing, collaborating with other agencies and with departments within the city, like the Police Department."
One such police/fire collaboration is the HEART (Homeless Engagement and Response Team) program being piloted, Ernst said. It's "something brand new we're rolling out. It involves a firefighter paramedic and a police officer paired in a patrol vehicle, and the main goal during their tour is to actively engage people in the homeless community."
The program is an adaptation of one successfully being run in Long Beach, Ernst said. Personnel in the HEART program will work closely with the outreach groups that already address homelessness and prevention. They'll help the homeless overcome obstacles — such as lack of government-issued ID, clearing outstanding warrants — "so they can get in a position where they can get the help that's available out there."
One of the roles of the HEART team will be assisting with the frequent "man down" calls that emergency responders receive. On one hand, police have rights that firefighters don't to make 5150 psychiatric holds of people who are in danger to themselves or others, Ernst said. And paramedic firefighters can provide treatment that might make an ambulance response unnecessary.
"Our ultimate goal is homeless engagement, and if a byproduct of that helps in reducing (duplicated) call response, that's good," the chief said.
Ernst said he appreciates the opportunity to have "grown up" within the Modesto Fire Department. During the past winter's flooding, he was the incident commander of the management team put in place by the cities of Modesto and Ceres and the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District.
The chief said he values the history of the department and its strong reputation, and he intends to "work very hard to represent the men and women who provide the service."
A formal swearing-in ceremony will be held at 4 p.m. Sept. 28 at Fire Station 1, 600 11th St.