Lodi's new fire chief, Larry Rooney, is not what you would expect.
He has an affinity for gardening and is pretty handy with using computer software to create videos that he posts on YouTube.
A movie aficionado who grew up with seven siblings, Rooney, who describes himself as an optimist, has been helming his new role as fire chief for only a month. And while he said he still has a lot to learn, he is up for the challenge.
A Southern California native who grew up in Costa Mesa, Rooney found his inspiration for his future employment in his father, who worked for the Los Angeles City Fire Department.
"I was one of the only siblings who actively took an interest in my father's job," he said. "I used to wait by the front door to ask him how his shift went the day before."
During high school, Rooney said he had experiences where he had to think quickly — including helping a woman who had been hit by a car — that made him begin to seriously consider becoming a fire fighter. After graduation, he headed to Orange Coast College and then Santa Ana City College, where he majored in fire science.
After a stint in Huntington Beach, Rooney was hired as a fire fighter in Peoria, Ariz., where he spent the next 27 years working his way up the ladder, eventually becoming Peoria's fire chief.
Below, Helms talks about his time so far as fire chief, issues facing the fire department and what the future may hold for the department.
Q: What is the fire department like here in Lodi compared to the fire department in Peoria?
A: Fire service in general is pretty much the same. Firefighters are pretty universal in what we do and what we stand for. The only thing that is different is the shift schedule. In Peoria, it was 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Here, the schedule is 48 hours on, 96 hours off.
Q: What has been the biggest adjustment as fire chief so far?
A: Definitely, leaving my place of comfort. I have been in Peoria for 27 years. And for right now, my family is still in Arizona. I haven't lived alone in 30 years — that is how long I have been married.
You get up and go to work every day. You end up going to the same drug store or the same grocery store. I was thinking today, I noticed one of my tires was a little low. And the next thing I know, I'm wondering which gas station has air pumps. It is those things you take for granted. And it is those things you have to adjust to as well.
Q: What has been your strategy to get to know everyone in the department?
A: What I have been doing is setting up meetings starting at the chief levels. I have actually met with everyone there. And I have met with two of three shifts. I want to down through the whole department, and because there are only 40 or 50 of us, it shouldn't take too long and it is important.
I have also had meetings with all of the department heads in the city and met with some other community leaders. I just want to go around and openly, honestly and transparently meet as many people as possible, telling them what things I can bring and also to talk about how I can help to look for ways that we can either interact or find the opportunities to interact and add value to the community and the department.
Q: In Lodi, there is definitely a higher ratio of EMS calls to structure fire calls. What is it like having to deal that, from your perspective?
A: It's still thrilling. It is all integrated as part of the job. One minute you go from fighting a fire to delivering a baby. (EMS) calls are a large portion of the business. You flip the switch ... That is why I like the fire service. It is not just one thing. You have no idea what you could do that day. You could be washing a truck one minute and then the next minute doing the most exciting thing of your life. When I first started out, if you had told me I would be responding to a bee attack, I would have laughed at you. But that is how the job is. All-hazards, all-encompassing job. We are here for potential, and if you look around Lodi, there is a lot of potential for fire.
Q: What would you like to maybe change?
A: You know what, I think they do a really good job of providing service here. It is not necessary for me to jump in and change everything. It would be a presumptuous thing to do. I want to take time to learn and listen. I've been getting some really good feedback from the department and I want to collaboratively set priorities on moving forward with those ideas.
Also, I want to help set (those ideas) to be realistic. We all have our barriers with things, like the budget. There are a lot of things we can do and I recognize that the "low hanging fruit" are things we can tweak right now. That would then allow us to spend time on bigger things that we want to accomplish in the future.
Q: What is budget like this year?
A: It is tough for everyone across the board. Less than 10 years ago, we had budgets we could do great things with. And even with that, we have to work within our means. The budget has not affected the level of service in Lodi.
I haven't been able to dig down into all of the budget, but what I can say is that the people within the department still go out and do great things for the citizens of Lodi.
We are all hurting from budget cuts on some level. But we also have to be able to put all the factors on the table, look at what we can do and do best with what we have now. We're an optimistic bunch. Tomorrow is looking pretty good.
Contact reporter Katie Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.