Fresno names interim chief Kerri Donis as new fire chief

The Fresno BeeJanuary 14, 2014 

Kerri Donis, an 18-year veteran of the Fresno Fire Department, has been named the department's new chief.

City Manager Bruce Rudd, joined by Mayor Ashley Swearengin, made the announcement at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.

Donis had been interim chief since June.

"I was recruited to be a student-athlete at Fresno State in 1987 and never left Fresno," Donis said. "I committed myself to becoming a Fresno firefighter, committed to making a difference for both the community and FFD members throughout my career, and will have the same drive and commitment going forward as the fire chief."

Donis, who played softball for then-Fresno State coach Margie Wright in the late 1980s and 1990, said she is honored to be named chief. Her annual salary will be $174,840.

Donis replaces Rob Brown, who resigned as Fresno fire chief on Aug. 6, just over a year into the job and nearly two months after he was arrested in a domestic violence incident. He was making $155,592 a year.

A week after his resignation, Brown pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor domestic-violence charges involving his family. His wife, Beth Brown, is the city of Fresno's emergency manager.

Swearengin said that Donis has proven her abilities over the past 18 years.

"As a long-term member of our community, Chief Donis brings with her a strong connection to our city and the residents we serve," Swearengin said.

Rudd, who hires and fires the chief, said that it's a privilege to promote Donis to permanent chief.

"Kerri's strong commitment to excellence and her continuous leadership resonates within the entire FFD operation," Rudd said.

Donis is the first woman to be named chief in either of the city's two law enforcement departments, fire and police. She downplayed the importance of this piece of history at the news conference.

"It's a fact, yes," Donis said. "But I just hope to be a role model in a positive way. I think it is a great honor to be the fire chief, regardless of my gender."

She has been key in securing more than $4.6 million in grant funding through government sources and foundations. The money was used to increase staffing, improve programs, procure equipment and implement marketing strategies.

Donis launched in the past year the Firefighter Community Outreach Program, which encourages firefighters to build relationships with residents.

The state of the fire department has been among Swearengin's chief worries in recent years. Money is the problem.

The city's finances were making a dramatic turn for the worse when Swearengin took office in 2009. The general fund, money spent at elected officials' discretion, is largely dependent on sales and property taxes. The Great Recession took a toll on these sources.

The fire department this year has a $58.2 million annual budget, about $49.2 million coming from the general fund. City officials had little choice when general fund revenues plummeted than to look toward fire, among other places, for budget-balancing cuts.

The result has been bare-bones staffing at fire stations even as calls for service have increased. Before he resigned, Brown said the department needed better and new equipment, and more of it. He said training and maintenance budgets needed a boost.

The outsourcing of the city's home trash service, which was to generate millions in franchise fees, was part of Swearengin's solution. However, voters last June rejected this plan in a special election.

The general fund these days is healthier, though far from flush. Department heads and other interests are fighting to be first in line should the money spigots open. With spring budget hearings on the horizon, Donis' biggest challenge as Fresno's 15th fire chief is to ensure her department doesn't get elbowed to the back.

The new chief on Tuesday was content to leave the internal wars to another time.

"I am humbled," Donis said. "It is with great pride that I now lead the Fresno Fire Department."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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