by Jake Richardson, Mercury News
Santa Clara County Fire Department Chief Kenneth R. Kehmna will retire on Aug. 12 after almost 31 years of service, much of it during some of the most devastating fires in the area. Under Kehmna’s leadership, Santa Clara County firefighters responded to the 2018 Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties, the 2016 Loma Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the 2016 Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, and the 2008 Summit Fire in Santa Clara County.
During the Aug. 1 Saratoga City Council meeting, Kehmna was recognized for his service to the city. In the recognition, the city noted that his leadership of the Santa Clara County Fire Department saved lives, extinguished and prevented fires, and educated community members. On June 7, the city of Campbell and Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors recognized Kehmna as well.
During his tenure, some of it as the Santa Clara County area fire and rescue mutual aid coordinator, neighboring fire departments benefited from his collaboration.
“This mutual aid system works. I know that by sending resources out of this county to help the citizens of Sonoma County, or Ventura County, or Siskiyou County I will get resources in return when the next Loma Prieta earthquake strikes or the next Loma Fire erupts in the Santa Cruz mountains,” Kehmna said by email this week.
When he began his career in 1987 as a firefighter with the Campbell Fire Department, it had the first fire department-based paramedic services in Northern California. It also had the first advanced life support paramedic apparatus in the area, a vehicle named Rescue 25, which was a 1974 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe C30.
“While fire departments were always the first responders to medical emergencies, the progression toward advanced life support service essentially brought an extension of the hospital emergency room into patient’s homes. This also helped define fire departments as all-risk emergency response agencies,” he said.
Five years later, in 1993, the Santa Clara County Fire Department began providing fire services to the city of Campbell, so he and his Campbell Fire Station colleagues were absorbed into the larger county department.
Kehmna demonstrated leadership traits throughout his career. He was fire captain from 2000 to 2004, training captain from 2004 to 2005, and battalion chief from 2005 to 2007. In 2007, he became the deputy chief of operations, and managed four department battalions and the division for fire investigation. In 2009, he was put in charge of training on all activities related to firefighter readiness. Two years later, in 2011, he was appointed fire chief for the Santa Clara County Fire Department by the County of Santa Clara Board.
“From the moment the Campbell Fire Department merged with County Fire, you knew Ken would be fire chief someday. He had an innate leadership quality that people recognized immediately. Ken was a working captain and a working chief. He was hands on and always involved. You knew he was passionate about providing exceptional service to the community,” said retired Santa Clara County Fire Captain Don Carlson.
A key part of the rise up the ranks was his commitment to education. He first completed an associate degree in fire science from Mission College. From there, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration from St. Mary’s College in 1999. To achieve his fire officer certification, Kehmna went through the standardized education system organized through the California State Fire Marshal. In 2009, he completed a master’s degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership from Grand Canyon University.
On the technological front, there were a number of improvements over the years, “Our fire engines have changed dramatically. They all contain mobile hotspots to transmit patient data directly to the hospital. They all contain mapping software to route them to emergencies quickly. Every paramedic engine company also carries advanced heart monitors that are capable of detecting lethal heart arrhythmias. During large emergencies, such as a wildfire, we are able to draw more accurate and real-time maps. We can map a fire using infrared technology,” said Kehmna.
When their firefighters are engaged in the field they wear a breathing apparatus which employs thermal imaging cameras to see through smoke to help find victims, he explained. As a part of incident management, the county fire department uses an iPad-based application to provide real-time unit status and call information to all crew members. Kehmna added that County Fire also uses data analysis to generate insights and improve performance.
“As an internationally accredited agency, we evaluate our data/services every five years. This process includes an in-depth look at the services we provide. The primary benefit of this process is that it uses an independent third-party agency, the Center for Public Safety Excellence, to evaluate the data we provide and measure our performance against other accredited agencies,” he said.
Technology has many benefits, but human relationships and teamwork were at the core of his leadership. “But my fondest memories really come from the closeness of the relationships you develop with your brother and sister firefighters. The fire service really is a family, it’s unique because we live together at the fire station for 48-hours at a time,” Kehmna said.
“Mealtime and the preparation that went into it is one of my fondest memories, because just as the kitchen table at home is a place to catch up and bond with family, at the station that’s where we share our lives with each other. The good and the bad. It’s where the impact of our life at the fire station and our lives at home come together, and we share that with each other,” he said.
He also explained that working in a fire department is the best job in the world because of the physical and mental challenges, the daily variety, employee camaraderie and meaningfulness of the work.
Because of the relationships that developed over his decades of service, he intends to stay in touch with many of the people from his work life during retirement.
Cheryl Roth, a Santa Clara County Fire Department administrative assistant for 15 years, commented on his ability to connect, “He always had a command presence, but he’s humble and has a way of engaging people in the conversation. Irrespective of your role in the organization, he makes you feel valued and that your contribution is important. As he was promoted he was still approachable and personable.”
Assistant Fire Chief Tony Bowden will be promoted to fire chief on Aug. 13, replacing Kehmna.
“Chief Kehmna has embodied the County Fire culture of courtesy and service, and he has always emphasized that County Fire is not about any one individual. Our plans and projects move forward because the entire team carries them forward. So while it’s truly humbling to follow in his footsteps, my hope is the transition is seamless because County Fire isn’t about me or Chief Kehmna or any other single individual,” said Bowden.
On what he plans to do during retirement Kehmna said, “I have always felt incredibly blessed to live in Santa Clara County. It provides so much opportunity. I’ve been an avid mountain biker for years and the trail system that’s been developed by County Parks, Midpeninsula and the other open space agencies is amazing. I’m a few hours from Tahoe, an hour from the beach. I’ll probably do some traveling, but my real passion lies in the things I can do every day, near my home.”