The restructuring of public safety in Ceres was completed Monday, when the City Council voted unanimously to hire Bryan Nicholes as the new fire chief.
The council started in October by adopting an ordinance that split the police and fire departments, which had been operated as one department of public safety since 1988.
A month ago, former Ceres police Lt. Brent Smith was promoted to police chief, and last week, Nicholes was asked to head the fire department. Both had served as acting chiefs since June, when director of public safety Art de Werk was relieved of his duties.
During that time, Nicholes had implemented changes and gotten some new equipment.
An $80,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security, along with a 10 percent match from the city, bought the Ceres Fire Department a trailer, equipment and training for fire ground survival last month. The trailer and equipment can be loaned out to other agencies, similar to the department’s arson dog, Chip.
Nicholes said the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department recently donated a used canine vehicle to the Fire Department, which will allow Chip’s handler, Capt. Jeff Santos, to respond more quickly and safely to local calls and travel farther to other agencies that could use Chip’s services.
Every month this year, Nicholes has arranged for a department head from the city to educate the firefighters about his or her department’s role in the community and how it affects the firefighters’ jobs.
“This gives them the opportunity to put a face to a name and know who’s who,” Nicholes said. “The trainings answer questions like: Where does our income come from? How do we get our budget? Where does the tax base for the city come from?”
He said he got the idea to do this when the prospect of losing six grant-funded firefighters in September rubbed many of them the wrong way. A few dozen showed up at a council meeting questioning the way funds from Measure H – a half-cent sales tax for public safety – were being used.
Nicholes said there were some misconceptions about taxpayer money and on what it can be spent.
He said he’s had a lot of positive feedback about the trainings and would like, in turn, to teach other departments about what firefighters do.
“We don’t just sit around waiting to put fires out,” he said. “There’s a whole list of stuff that people don’t know about that we do, like building inspections.”
The six grant-funded firefighter jobs were secured at least until June with a plan developed by Nicholes, designed to sustain them until the city could reapply for the grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
By “browning out” one of the city’s four fire stations and using its firefighters to fill in at the other stations when colleagues are out sick or on vacation, Nicholes said the city has saved as much as $150,000 in overtime since the end of September.
Those firefighters cost the city about $55,000 a month, so the city still has spent about $125,000 during that time period to sustain them.
FEMA finally opened the grant application period, but a decision isn’t expected until June at the earliest, or as late as September.
Looking forward, Nicholes said his immediate priorities are to address that possible gap and develop a budget for the coming fiscal year.
He will earn a monthly salary of $10,814.
A swearing-in ceremony has not yet been scheduled.
AT A GLANCE
▪ Bryan Nicholes grew up in west Modesto and graduated from Modesto High School. He has an associate’s degree from Modesto Junior College and a bachelor’s degree from Saint Mary’s College. He is also a certified emergency medical technician.
▪ Nicholes started his career in the fire service as a fire explorer at Burbank-Paradise Fire District in 1972. In 1983, he went to the Ceres Fire Department. He left in 1987 to return to Burbank-Paradise as fire chief. He returned to the Ceres Fire Department as the fire marshal in March 1989.
▪ In addition to his duties as fire chief, Nicholes will retain his responsibilities as fire marshal and supervisor of the Code Enforcement Division.
▪ Nicholes has a wife, Becki, and adult son, Colbey.
▪ Nicholes, his wife and son attend Big Valley Grace Community Church in Modesto. They have been on three mission trips to a Navajo reservation in Dilkon, Ariz. In 2009, he and his wife traveled to the West African nation of Guinea on a mission trip.