New hat for firefighting veteran

Fire Chief Dale Foster, center, talks about his new badge with

– Dale Foster sat at his desk in Gilroy Fire Department’s
Chestnut Station Tuesday afternoon, his first day as the city’s new
chief, and remembered the days when the fire station was merely a
place to stay.
By Lori Stuenkel

Gilroy – Dale Foster sat at his desk in Gilroy Fire Department’s Chestnut Station Tuesday afternoon, his first day as the city’s new chief, and remembered the days when the fire station was merely a place to stay.

As an undergraduate student at Oregon State University, Foster was actually studying elementary education when a friend told him about a fire department volunteer program in nearby Albany, Ore. He would live in the fire station, in exchange for working one night shift every third day.

“It was an exciting introduction because you see the expertise, the crews working as a team … I could see the difference between being volunteer and paid firefighters,” Foster said.

Foster worked part-time at the station, and called it home, for his last two years of college before being hired by the department full-time the summer after graduation.

“It started really as trying to get a place to stay and something to do while in college,” Foster said, but the experience sparked a love for firefighting that has lasted more than 30 years.

Foster joined San Jose Fire Department in 1972 after fulfilling his U.S. Navy reserve commitment and stayed there 32 years.

He rose through the ranks to engineer, then captain then in 1996 to battalion chief in, then to deputy chief, and finally, in 2000 to assistant chief.

While San Jose searched for a fire chief in 2003, Foster served as interim chief before then-Gilroy Chief Jeff Clet was hired to the job one year ago.

In San Jose, Foster oversaw the department’s training division for four years, and in the early 1980s, was one of the founders of the department’s Hazardous Materials Response team that deals with toxic spills.

“We did it kind of as a specialized unit, out of the training center, and then brought it to the line,” Foster said.

Foster also experienced firsthand the Santana Row fire in August 2002, the worst fire loss in San Jose history. He was among the 120 firefighters who responded to the 42-acre fire at the shopping center construction site, then helped manage operations and coordinate mutual aid for that fire and a nearby apartment fire.

During San Jose’s search for a permanent chief in 2003, Foster was among the finalists interviewed for the job. When Clet was hired away from Gilroy and his position opened up, Clet encouraged him to apply, he said, adding he was ready to become a chief.

He officially retired last Friday, and enjoyed two days of retirement before he was sworn in Tuesday.

Now, the 56-year-old Morgan Hill resident will leave a city 20 times the size of Gilroy, with hundreds of firefighters, to oversee this city’s department of about 40 firefighters working three stations.

During his tenure, Foster will be faced with the challenge of the City of Gilroy’s limited budget while implementing the recently completed Fire Master Plan. In the coming days and weeks he will meet with senior managers and City Administrator Jay Baksa to talk about the department’s expenses, and firefighter and paramedic response in light of limited resources.

He will also work on providing career development for firefighters in the department to promote to management positions.

Foster credited Gilroy Fire with having an active fire education component to better fulfill its duty to protect and serve the community.

Foster said he looks forward to working with the firefighters union and is ready to jump into negotiations between the union and the city, which have been under way since last fall.

“That’s why I had a two-day retirement,” he said.

Retirement benefits are the major sticking point in negotiations, with firefighters seeking to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their salary paid after working at least 34 years, and officials calling the plan unsustainable.

Foster’s management skills were no doubt put to the test during the hiring process last fall. He was one of six people chosen from 25 applicants to participate in several rounds of interviews and an in-depth background check.

His salary will start at $141,216 per year. His salary in San Jose, of which he will receive a percentage in pension, was $160,962.