Change of chiefs at Bolinas fire station

05/02/2019

The Bolinas Fire Protection District will have a new chief at the helm as it prepares to tackle new issues, some bolstered by funding and others driven by increased need. 

Anita Tyrrell-Brown, who has led the department for over 15 years, is retiring in June, and this month George Krakauer—a Bolinas native who joined the volunteer force a decade ago—became the district’s acting chief. He will take over the official post with Chief Tyrrell-Brown’s departure.

The transition will be the smoothest the district has ever known, Chief Tyrrell-Brown said. She announced her plans to retire two years ago to give the board ample time to find her replacement. 

Initially, she was concerned that it would be a difficult search: she needed someone who lived in Bolinas, knew the town and community, was skilled in the operational aspects of the job, and could handle the administrative workload.  

“Plus, our community—as all of our West Marin communities are—it’s unique,” she said. “We don’t have the same amount of staff, we don’t run all of our calls the same. Our water system is different, our roads are different.” 

But a year ago, Chief Tyrrell-Brown found her match in Mr. Krakauer, who was born and raised in his parents’ home in Bolinas and has been volunteering at the department since he was 19. Mr. Krakauer has trained as an E.M.T. and has an associate’s degree in fire technology. He spent seven seasons working with the Marin County Fire Department before becoming a full-time duty officer in Bolinas. 

Mr. Krakauer is impossible to rattle and is consistently calm under pressure, Chief Tyrrell-Brown said. “He’s terrific with people and, operationally, he is incredibly strong,” she added. 

The two have been training together since last July.

Bolinas’s assistant fire chief, Steve Marcotte, has observed Mr. Krakauer closely for years. He said he “has a down-to-earth way of looking at things” and a “way of connecting with people. He calms them down and shows them it may not be okay, but we’re there to help in any way we can.” 

Mr. Marcotte added, “I’ve watched him take on more responsibility about budgeting and personnel and H.R. He’s going to do really well because he comes with a good base knowledge, and Anita’s really groomed him and shown him the important things.”  

Chief Tyrrell-Brown said she herself never intended to become the fire chief. She had moved to Bolinas in 1989 with a goal at the time of becoming a paramedic; she and her husband at the time saved money while she went to school by living on his mother’s property.

But after her first year of E.M.T. training, her first pregnancy put her career path on hold. With encouragement from her then-brother-in-law, she began training as a volunteer firefighter. In 1991, she filled in for the district’s secretary and the next year became a part-time staff firefighter.  

“I got completely interested in it and really wanted to be a firefighter—and never went back to paramedic school,” Chief Tyrrell-Brown said. Although early in her career she considered getting a firefighting job outside of the Bolinas department, she said staying in town enabled her to balance her job with raising her two sons. “They literally were raised in the fire department,” she laughed. “The bus would drop them off right here.” 

When then-fire chief Kevin Hicks went on permanent disability in 2003, Chief Tyrrell-Brown became the acting chief and the official chief a year later. 

“It’s a lot of responsibility—it’s a big position,” she said. “It’s a lot easier being the second in command and saying, ‘Wow, that sounds terrible. You should talk to [the chief].’” Ultimately, however, she decided that her love for the department—its mission and its crew—were worth shouldering the burdens. 

The department has two full-time employees—the chief and a full-time duty-officer—a part-time assistant chief, and seasonal firefighters; otherwise, it consists of volunteers. Though the number fluctuates, Chief Tyrrell-Brown said that over the years the volunteer force has averaged about 20 members. Currently, there are 22. 

While increased tourist visitation has ramped up the need for more firefighters in town, the dearth of local jobs and the proliferation of second homes and vacation rentals have meant that few young people can afford to live in Bolinas. Even fewer are able to drop work during the day to make it to an emergency. 

David Kimball, a longtime director with the district, said the work Chief Tyrrell-Brown did to help pass the new transit occupancy tax increase for West Marin has enabled the department to expand its services by hiring more staff. Although she wasn’t allowed to advocate for the issue as an employee of the fire district, as “a private member of the community, she attended multiple community meetings and really laid out the case for why this revenue source would be helpful and what it would be used for,” Mr. Kimball said. 

With the new revenue stream from the increased T.O.T., which will become available in July, the department was able to hire Mr. Marcotte, a longtime volunteer who has also worked as a firefighter and paramedic in Sausalito and San Francisco. Part of his job is to coordinate the West Marin Disaster Council; he will also work on the district’s wildland fire prevention and education program.

Although the district has been working on prevention efforts for years through educational pamphlets and public meetings, there has never been a position devoted to it.

The department also hopes to expand the seasonal duty officer position—which was previously just a four-month gig during the summer season—to a year-long position. 

Bolinas firefighters have a reputation for being disciplined and well-regimented. In order to serve, volunteers must be at least 18 years old and must have lived in the town for over a year. They train every Thursday night and one to two Saturday mornings each month. 

Camaraderie—as well as knowledge, muscle memory and discipline—is key. “You cannot have discord in the troops,” Chief Tyrrell-Brown said. “The volunteers don’t get compensated; they get $6 a drill to come to trainings. They regularly interrupt holidays, dinners, the middle of the night to help people for the sake of doing it.”

In that, she leads by example, said Mary Brown, the district’s former secretary and administrative assistant. “She volunteers a lot of time herself: she’s often [conducting] CPR classes at night and is in on the weekends doing extra time beyond what she’s getting paid for. She’s going to do whatever it takes.” Mr. Kimball said that Chief Tyrrell-Brown’s direct manner and respect for others fuels her gravitas. 

Her versatility is another asset, given that the vast majority of calls do not involve flames. “Our T-shirts say ‘fire,’ but we’re everything from cats in trees to water problems,” said Mr. Krakauer, who himself has rescued four felines. 

All of the fire officials echoed the same goals and concerns about the district’s future: wildfire prevention, emergency response and staffing. 

Vegetation management is key to fire prevention, and part of Mr. Marcotte’s new job will be figuring out how the district can take a more forceful approach to ensuring that roadways are cleared of fire fuels. The district says it simply does not have enough staff to adequately inspect the town’s properties. 

“Anita always says if Mill Valley recognizes brush on the roadside, they call the Department of Public Works and say, ‘Come and do it,’” Mr. Marcotte said. “But there is no D.P.W. for Bolinas roads, because they’re not county maintained.” 

It’s a vexing problem, he went on. “We’re truly committed to opening our roads, but the question is how do we do it.” 

Chief Tyrrell-Brown said the roads are dirt, narrow and overgrown. “Some of these roads are like hobbit trails,” she said. “In a fire situation, when we’re trying to get engines in, it’s unacceptable.” 

Last year, she suggested that if neighborhoods raised money to clear the brush, the department could find matching funds. Mr. Marcotte said at least two neighborhoods were cleared using that strategy; still, the district expects resident pushback to the ramped-up fuel-reduction efforts. 

The department is also exploring the idea of installing a siren to alert residents of tsunamis or wildland fires. Chief Tyrrell-Brown said the old fire station—the current one was completed in 2007—had a siren that would emit specific audio codes that clued firefighters in to which neighborhoods needed assistance. 

But emergency alert systems such as air raid sirens or voice-capable acoustic devices are hampered by the area’s topography, Chief Tyrrell-Brown said. Furthermore, a siren would need to be followed up with additional information so that people know where to go and what to do in the case of various types of emergencies. 

Mr. Krakauer said he is looking into which siren systems may best fit into the district’s emergency-preparedness strategies. 

Chief Tyrrell-Brown is staying on in an advisory capacity for the next three months before she and her husband, Pete Maendle, also a volunteer on the force, move to Nevada in July. While she isn’t sure what her retirement will look like, she has considered nursing or becoming involved with the Red Cross. 

But it isn’t easy leaving Bolinas behind. She said she was going to miss her volunteer crew “miserably,” along with the close-knit community she has spent so many years serving.  

“One of the hardest things about this job—and one of the best—is knowing everybody and going on calls where you know the person,” she said. “When the outcome is good, it’s great. And when the outcome is not good, it’s tough, but it’s nice to be out there to support these people. We hear from people time and time again that they’re so grateful that the people walking into their house are people that they know.”