Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown, who oversaw the department through the Waldo Canyon fire, announced his retirement on Tuesday morning in a news release.
Brown joined the department in 1980, and was promoted to fire chief in December 2011. During his 32-year tenure, he worked some of the Springs’ landmark disasters, starting with the 1986 Red Tag explosion, the 1997 blizzard, the 2007 Castle West apartment fire, and the Waldo Canyon fire last June.
Brown, 54, officially retires April 30, but for the next six months he’ll remain on the city’s payroll as a consultant to Mayor Steve Bach, according to the city. Brown will continue to receive his full salary, $147,657 annually, and benefits.
Brown is leaving in the midst of the city’s work to craft a new ambulance-service contract, and as it prepares to negotiate possible 7 percent raises for firefighters.
As the 17th chief since the department’s founding, he was the first appointed by Bach, who on Tuesday touted Brown as a “legend” and a “hero.”
For his colleagues, Brown’s legacy is that of a man who came up through the rank and file and who understood the department culture when he reached the top.
“I know that he was a great guy to work for,” said Battalion Chief Jim Shanel, who has worked with Brown since 1986. “We’ve all been through a lot of stress with change, the economy, Waldo — he did well with it.”
Shanel praised Brown’s initiative to open two new fire stations, as well as start a community health program, something that Shanel says stemmed from Brown’s past as a “great paramedic.”
Steve Cox, who also rose through the ranks to become fire chief, grew up with Brown in the department. The two men remained great friends, and when Cox retired in 2011 and became city manager he said he suggested that Bach hire Brown as the new chief.
As a firefighter and then as chief, Brown has seen the department through several changes — new training requirements that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as an economic recession that meant budget cuts, and finally the Waldo Canyon fire, which taxed the department to the max. Brown took the helm in a time of change for the city government as well, Shanel pointed out. Brown had to function in the world of policy making where the balance of power had shifted measureably from city managers, council and the mayor to mostly the mayor.
“A change in governments has been challenging for a lot people,” Shanel said. “Every department’s head changed since the strong mayor took over.”
In Bach’s first fall as mayor, Police Chief Richard Myers was replaced by Police Chief Pete Carey. Cox also went from fire chief to city manager, then to chief of economic vitality before retiring in July 2012.
Brown is the third top administrator to depart the city in the past few weeks. Mark Earle, Colorado Springs director of aviation, stepped down in March. Like Brown, he remains on staff in an advisory position until a full-time director is hired. Earlier this month, Helen Migchelbrink, city engineer and public works director, resigned effective May 31.
There is no connection between the three resignations, said Laura Neumann, Bach’s chief of staff. It is unfortunate that the three administrators are leaving at the same time, she said.
Brown declined an interview to discuss his retirement. Cox and Shanel both speculated that Brown was simply “ready to retire” after three decades of service. Shanel added he could not speak to “what’s gone on behind closed doors,” but that Brown is leaving the department in good standing, with an impressive list of goals achieved and the respect of colleagues to commend him.
“I am honored to have served in every capacity that I have and did my best every day,” Brown said in the news release. “I believe we are on the right track exploring the options that are out there with respect to ambulance contracts and that will only serve the community better.”
The city said that Brown’s retirement had no connection with its recent release of the Waldo Canyon fire After Action Report.
“In no way did the after action report color our opinion of Rich,” said Neumann. “In fact, we consider him a hero.”
Nonetheless, firefighters say that Brown was not a universally liked chief. Brown has long been a champion of the medical side of firefighting, and needed to put more focus on training in firefighting, and wildland firefighting in particular, some said. Brown is not highly-qualified in wildland firefighting, according to a list of his certifications. When it comes to managing a wildland fire, Brown is out-ranked in experience by several of the captains, lieutenants and battalion chiefs who serve under him, records show. One of the city’s pitfalls during the Waldo Canyon fire was its failure to fully use those resources and implement the Incident Command System for wildfire response, according to the city’s after action report released April 3.
While many praised Brown for his enthusiasm for firefighting — a “phenomenal cheerleader for the department,” one firefighter said — some firefighters, who did not want to be identified, said that Brown’s role as chief was often swallowed in his role as a Bach executive.
For Jeremy Kroto, president of the Local 5 firefighters union, the question of whether or not Brown was liked “is irrelevant,” he wrote to The Gazette in an email. The union wished him well and said it hopes to be have a voice in the creation of a list of qualifications for a new chief. The union would seek a chief who can ensure “essential city services that provide for public safety and protection from fire, medical, hazardous materials, and other man made or natural disasters are the top priority of local government,” Kroto wrote.
Shanel praised Brown’s ability to delegate responsibilites to those who had the expertise to handle them, while shining at his own passion: medical services. He championed causes that were important to him, such as reconfiguring an American Medical Response medical services contract in a split from the Emergency Services Agency. Brown has been working on the contract, and his retirement came at a critical time in the process, said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark on Tuesday.
The new fire chief will inherit that change, along with a multi-faceted department, said Shanel. The new fire chief will have to deal with a growing city with a significant potential for wildland-urban fires, among other things.
“We’ve got a business to run, and the fire chief has to fill pretty big shoes,” he added. “It would take a new fire chief a year or so to even get up to speed.”
Gazette reporters Monica Mendoza, Daniel Chacón and Andrea Sinclair contributed to this report.