Valley Regional Fire Authority’s new Chief and Administrator, Brent Swearingen, was officially appointed to his new role before the VRFA Board of Governance at last night’s meeting. Prior to his new promotion, Swearingen served as VRFA’s Deputy Chief of Operations.
“Chief Swearingen brings 34 years of experience in the fire service, significant academic achievements and industry credentials. During his tenure as deputy chief at VRFA, he has been a proven leader with demonstrated results,” said former Board Chairman Nancy Backus, who is Mayor of Auburn. “My fellow Board Members and I look forward to working with Brent to continue the longstanding commitment of delivering outstanding service to the people who live, work and visit our communities.”
Swearingen assumed his role on the fist of the year. He replaced former Administrator, Eric Robertson, who retired after a 35-year career in public service, 12 of which was with the VRFA.
Getting to Know Chief Swearingen
Swearingen served four years in the U.S. Army. Prior to his honorable discharge, he served as a Russian language Intercept Operator with a top-secret security clearance. In 1984 Swearingen began his firefighting career in Reno, NV. He joined the VRFA in 2012.
Before he transitioned to his position as Chief and Administrator, we were able to ask Swearingen some questions in order to get to know our new Fire Chief a little better.
From Blackjack to the Back of a Rig
Auburn Examiner: What brought you to join fire services?
Chief Swearingen: I wish I could say that I always had an intense desire to be a firefighter, but the fact is that I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and had never met a professional firefighter. I was dealing blackjack at Harrah’s in Reno, NV, and the club was right down the street from the main fire station. I got to see the crews working together and responding to emergencies at all hours. When they put out a notice in the newspaper that they were recruiting, I tried to be first in line. That was in 1983. I got hired the next year.
AE: When is the last time you were on scene, actively fighting a fire?
CS: If the question is when I last was manning a hose line, it’s been awhile. I’ve been a chief officer since 1996, therefore it would have been shortly before that. Now, if the question is when I have had input into the tactics and strategy of a fire attack – that would have been a year ago at the Heritage fire. I’m blessed with very competent chief officers here. I will stay out of their way and let them do their job on all but the largest or most complex incidents.
AE: Do you miss the daily firefighting?
CS: Oh yeah. I loved actively fighting fires. It’s one of the few jobs where you get immediate feedback on how you are doing. It’s very satisfying when you can get a good hit on a fire and stop it in its tracks.
New Role, New Responsibilities
AE: How do you feel about your promotion?
CS: I’m gratified by the trust that the Board of Governance and Administrator Robertson have shown me. But at the same time, I feel the responsibility of protecting both our citizens and fire professionals. Given the range and depth of my prior experience and education, I feel that I am up to the challenge.
AE: How do you feel you will manage the dual position of Administrator and Chief?
CS: The dual role identifies that the regional fire authority is a stand-alone entity and is not administratively supported by a city, as is the case in a municipal fire department. I’ve been lucky in that
I’ve been the operations chief here for seven years, so I have a pretty good grasp of the fire authority’s workings. I’ve also worked in Reno in the city manager’s office and I understand municipal government fairly well from a manager’s (or Mayor’s) perspective. As with the firefighting and support staffs, the VRFA has an outstanding executive team that remains in place. I’ll lean heavily on them to fill in any gaps.
AE: One of the biggest differences between yourself and outgoing administrator Eric Robertson is that you are a career Firefighter. How do you feel this will shape your role as the VRFA Administrator?
CS: I think that while we bring some different life experiences to our jobs, we share values such as integrity, public accountability, fairness, and wise use of public funds. I’ve learned a lot from him in the last seven years, and plan to continue his legacy of fire service excellence.
Applying His Experience To His New Position
AE: Every city, agency and even station do (some) things differently. Was there anything you brought over from Reno that has been implemented in VRFA? Is there anything you plan to put into place that you felt was successful in Reno that would work well with VRFA?
CS: One of the programs that we are advancing that was big in Reno is wildland firefighting. In the past seven years, the VRFA has gone from having a very rudimentary wildland firefighting ability to being the premier wildland agency in the area. This will continue to pay dividends as the climate heats up and developers continue to build in the forest interface areas. A future need I see may be in high rise operations. Reno had 77 identified high rises when I was there. As developers begin to build upwards, new tactics and equipment will be needed to ensure we can respond safely and effectively.
AE: Auburn is susceptible to a variety of natural disasters. How do you feel your skills in emergency management and disaster response will benefit the VRFA and City of Auburn should we experience a disaster or natural event?
CS: I do have experience in large disasters, both natural and man-made. I’ve worked in a county Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Nevada during two major floods, I was the Operations Chief in the Snohomish EOC during the extended operations due to the Oso mudslide, and I was the incident commander during the investigation and recovery of a 12 fatality fire in Reno that involved multiple police and fire jurisdictions including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that lasted over a week.
A large portion of my master’s degree training at the Naval Postgraduate School was focused on potential terrorist threats to infrastructure and population centers and what can be done to better prepare and respond to large emergencies. So I do feel personally prepared, but there is always more we can do to prepare as a community.
AE: You did post-graduate training at the Naval Postgraduate School. How does this education enhance what you bring to the table in your new roles?
CS: As I mentioned above, this was a master’s program in homeland security studies and nearly every aspect of the training was linked to better ways to prepare and respond to emergencies. The program was very rigorous and stressed data-driven decision making, which is an area that the broader fire service needs to improve. I was also able to expand my professional network across all levels of government and into fields that would not otherwise have been available to me.
Does A New Chief Mean Changes At VRFA?
AE: Do you have any changes you expect to implement?
CS: Probably the first and most obvious changes are going to be in the command personnel due to Administrator Robertson’s retirement and other impending retirements. This wi
ll leave a large experience gap at the top of the organization, but it also creates opportunities to put new leadership in place that may have new ideas and fresh energy.
AE: Where do you hope to see the VRFA in one year?
CS: In the next year I plan on being well along on several initiatives that we have recently started. The most significant is beginning the accreditation process. Accreditation requires that we take a deep analytical dive into all aspects of our operation: everything from how we get our funding to how many firefighters respond to a warehouse fire. I anticipate that it will take a full year to do the initial analysis. An important part of this process is also to identify probable societal trends that will impact our operations. This includes such items as how our aging population will receive needed services and what kind of urban development and technological changes we will see. As a result of this, everyone in the organization should have a common operating picture, which is not now always the case.
AE: In five years?
CS: In five years we will have acted on the analysis that we are doing now. This will determine what services are delivered, and the methods of delivering them. We will also have taken advantage of any service enhancements made possible by deeper cooperation with neighboring jurisdictions.
AE: What are you most proud of about VRFA?
CS: This is an easy one. I’m most proud of the people that I get to serve beside. From the day I arrived at the VRFA seven years ago, I’ve been impressed by the dedication and work ethic that is exhibited daily here. Beyond the professionalism, there is a sense of responsibility to the community that is demonstrated through the many community services and events that the people here support. The annual toy drive that the firefighters just completed is a prime example.
AE: Tell me a little bit about your community service with the Auburn Kiwanis Club. There are several service clubs in Auburn, why did you choose the Kiwanis Club?
CS: Early on in my tenure here, Administrator Robertson made it clear that he expected his staff to be active community members. One way of doing this is through the various service clubs. Since we already had representatives in the Rotary and Lions, I chose Auburn Noon Kiwanis. As it turns out, it was a good fit and I’ve really enjoyed my time with [the club] and the service projects we do.