by Joe Szydlowski, Salinas Californian
For the first time in its history, the Salinas Fire Department is under the command of a female fire chief, the city announced Thursday. Michele Vaughn is the interim fire chief for the department, where she's worked for almost 21 years.
"I couldn’t be more happy," she said. "In the same breath, I’ll say I have some big work ahead of me." She replaces Pablo Barreto, who retired last month after about a year on the job.
The department has struggled to retain fire chiefs since Ed Rodriguez left in 2017.
"I have been the first woman to any ranking officer, was first battalion chief, then deputy chief and now interim fire chief," she said.
Vaughn didn't start out in firefighting and becoming a firefighter wasn't on her radar until later in life, she said. "If you would have asked me as a little girl, 'Could you be a firefighter?' I would have said no (because it's) a predominantly male field," she said. "For young women and girls... I think it's good to show that it is a possibility for folks."
Vaughn started out in physical therapy, earning a bachelor's degree from San Diego State University and working at a clinic in Palo Alto in 1996 and 1997.
As she worked with her patients, they got to know each other, including a series of three firefighters who changed her life. They told her she might consider a career change because she had the outgoing, helping personality of a firefighter, as well as the fitness necessary for the job. "These three firefighters all said, 'Hey, have you ever considered a career in the fire service? We need people like you to join,'" she said. "Finally, after the third patient came through and said that I said, 'Am I missing the boat here?'"
She attended the fire academy at Mission College. After graduating, she applied for several jobs, including in Salinas.
"Most people in the fire service are wired to help people. They want to make the worst day of someone's life better," she said. "99.9% of firefighters are problem solvers. We arrive on scene, receive information, and process it and very quickly have to make a decision. "Sometimes you have to make three or four quick decisions," she said, adding firefighters embrace that challenge.
Vaughn worked her way to engineer, who drives the fire engine, next captain and then battalion chief, who oversees major incidents such as house fires. "I've sat in literally every seat this organization has," she said.
But she never thought she'd be in the chief's chair. The city is committed to diversity and a woman brings a different approach, such as a new perspective on recruiting and building relationships, she said. Vaughn is well-known and respected throughout the department, said Josh Hostetter, a Salinas firefighter and president of the Salinas City Firefighters Association. He said that includes himself. "Michele was actually my driver when I was a rookie. We'd be up to 2 a.m. on a busy day, she'd be teaching me the things (I needed to know)," he said. "Michele has probably dedicated more time off-duty to the fire service than anyone I know."
Vaughn has worked at every Salinas fire station, served as a board member and treasurer for the Training Section of the California Fire Chiefs Association and is also a member of the Women in the Fire Service organization. She's also served in search-and-rescue, including having a rescue dog Comet, and worked on the fire department's HAZMAT team, Hostetter said. "She’s one of those ballplayers you can put in any position on the diamond," Hostetter said. That also makes her better suited than a chief from another part of the country or region, he added.
Barreto arrived from the Watsonville Fire Department to replaced former Jeff Johnson, who was recruited from the Kansas City Fire Department. Johnson left in February 2019 to helm the Newport News Fire Department. Because Barreto had a weekend job, it meant he had a difficult time getting to know employees and new procedures.
That's why Vaughn makes sense, Hostetter said. "We've been banging the drum for over two years now. We have the talent to make the organization successful," he said. A chief from outside the area has to learn Salinas, both the community and the fire department.
"Chief Johnson was a phenomenal person... (but) you're talking about a year, maybe more, just to learn the organization," he said. Vaughn agreed, saying that acclimating to a new department takes a lot of time.
"Maybe they weren't quite the right fit for our pace," she said. Who ultimately replaces Barreto is yet to be determined. Vaughn, whose husband also works in firefighting, said she is leaning heavily toward throwing her hat in the ring.