A change in leadership is coming to the Novato Fire District as Chief Marc Revere's right-hand man, Deputy Chief Eric Nickel, gets situated with his new role as top dog in Palo Alto.
Nickel, a firefighter for 25 years, accepted the Peninsula post Tuesday as fire chief and assistant public safety director with the city of Palo Alto, as reported by the Palo Alto Daily News. Nickel will earn $184,830 and start Nov. 13, the paper reported.
Nickel said the Palo Alto Fire Department — which unlike in Novato is part of the city government rather than a special district with separate tax revenues — has been under the direction of Palo Alto police Chief Dennis Burns since June 2010, when fire Chief Nick Marinaro retired.
"I will miss the people the most. I'm not good at goodbyes," Nickel said of leaving Novato. "As word has been trickling out, I have had people stopping by and calling to tell me what I meant to them, and I've heard a lot of heartfelt comments that mean a lot to me."
Nickel has served as deputy chief for the past five years and will come up just short of 21 years with Novato Fire. He's been active with service groups and nonprofits in the community and helped lead the Novato Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Novato program, a nine-month program that is sort of like getting a master's degree in everything about Novato.
"Anytime anyone gets a promotion and moves away, I'm always sad and happy at the same time," said Coy Smith, CEO of the Novato Chamber of Commerce. "When people work up the ladder in their jobs, you congratulate them but mourn their departure at the same time. Eric was involved in Leadership Novato for many years and ended up co-chairing its advisory board. He's always had the best interests of the city in mind and he's a good guy who will be missed."
Brad Beedle, a member of the Novato Fire District Board of Directors, said the district should be proud of Nickel's promotion.
"Novato trains its people well and prepares them for opportunities like this, and we applaud that," Beedle said. "He's taking part of 'The Novato Way' to Palo Alto, and that city will really benefit from that. Eric is a great communicator and has given a lot of Novato in terms of his leadership ability."
Nickel said he was approached by a recruiter who sent him a flier about the Palo Alto position. He got a positive reaction from his wife, Marianna, on it.
"She said, 'They wrote this (job description) for you,'" Nickel said. "What we've done in Novato is what they're looking for. They've had a rough couple of years for a variety of reasons."
Palo Alto has a fire budget of about $27.5 million, down $2 million from the previous fiscal year, and 123 full-time equivalent employees. Novato's budget is about $29 million with the equivalent of 88 full-timers.
Revere previously was fire chief in Mountain View and told Nickel that the network of fire leadership in that area was strong. They discussed some of the things Palo Alto needs — mentoring, strategic planning, leadership development, fiscal responsibility and using the latest technology and analytics to assess community fire risk and emergency response times.
"Those are all things we've had up here in Novato and will continue to have," Nickel said.
In a memo shared with the Novato Fire District, Revere wrote, "Obviously, this is a tremendous milestone for Chief Nickel and an important career goal; he will be leaving a huge void in our organization. However, this should be seen as a positive aspect; he has obtained the top position in the fire service, while simultaneously opening doors for other members of ours who are still growing in their positions."
Revere said there are internal candidates ready to step up, and, "This is part of Chief Nickel's legacy." He said the mark of a great organization is how many people are placed in other organizations and how many serve in leadership positions.
"Marc has been wonderful and Eric as second-in-command has been amazing, and I have no doubt he'll do a fantastic job in Palo Alto establishing himself there," Novato Mayor Denise Athas said. "They are very lucky to get him. ... He has been an integral party of the family here and he will be sorely missed."
The Nickel family — Eric, Marianna, son Noah and daughter Bella — have lived in Terra Linda for 12 years. Nickel said he would probably work and stay in Palo Alto during the week and come home on weekends for the next 18 months until Noah finishes with high school and Bella is ready to start high school.
"It sounds like a cliche, but I looked at this as a once-in-a-lifetime or once-in-a-career opportunity," he said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Nickel's last day with the Novato Fire District is Oct. 24. He was making a base salary of $163,000 a year, according to a story in the Marin Independent Journal.