South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Jeff Meston retiring | TahoeDailyTribune.com

South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Jeff Meston retiring

Ryan Hoffman | rhoffman@tahoedailytribune.com

When Jeff Meston came out of "retirement" to serve as South Lake Tahoe's fire chief in 2013, he had two looming questions he hoped to answer.

The first: could he still work hard? The second: could he do a good job?

Meston knows the answer to the first question.

The second one will take some time to answer.

"Yes, I can work hard," Meston said in his mostly cleaned out office in fire station No. 3. "I still don't have an answer as to whether I did a good job or not. I won't know the answer to that until I'm gone."

Meston's last official day on the job is Feb. 28, marking about four months more than the five years he intended to serve in the role.

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City Manager Frank Rush said South Lake Tahoe's human resources director will conduct the search process, which will be open to internal and external candidates.

Rush anticipates having the position advertised within the next several weeks, and he hopes to name an interim chief by the end of February.

Meston, whose fire career spans nearly four decades, cites two reasons for stepping down.

The first concerns his leadership with the California Fire Chief's Association, a statewide organization responsible for representing California firefighting agencies. Meston was named president-elect of the organization in August 2017. He assumed the position of president a year later in 2018, and will serve as past president for a year after his term as president ends.

The job has consumed about 15-20 hours a week, according to Meston. He enjoys the work, but it's particularly stressful for a chief at a rural fire department that lacks a deep bench of administrators to help with the responsibilities of running a department (the past several presidents of the organization have been from larger metropolitan agencies).

With each year seemly bringing a new record in terms of wildfire devastation, Meston said the association is taking an elevated role in helping craft policy at the state level.

The second reason, Meston explained, has to do with timing.

In August 2018 he presented a standards of cover — a nearly 400-page document detailing the current state of South Lake Tahoe's fire department — to City Council.

The document, which Meston is particularly proud of, painted a fact-based portrait of a fire department that lacks the necessary funding, manpower and resources.

Among the copious suggestions in the report was a recommendation to reopen fire station No. 2, located in the heart of the city at 2951 Lake Tahoe Blvd.

"The closing of Fire Station 2 has had a dramatic effect on response times and to the citizens and visitors in the center of our City," the report states.

Reopening the station elevated to a campaign talking point in the 2018 City Council race, but has since faded to the background, aside from occasional mentions, particularly by Councilor Cody Bass.

The city, based on advice in the standards of cover, is pursuing a grant to help open station No. 2. City Council is slated to receive an update on that process at its first meeting in March.

With a lull between the presentation of the standards of cover and the actual implementation of some of the document's suggestions, Meston said now is the right time to step away and let a new chief come in.

Community awareness

Meston was hired by the city in 2013 — a transitional time for the city's fire department.

There was a leadership vacuum in the upper ranks and the department was, as Meston said it was described to him at the time, floundering.

There also was the question of providing emergency medical services, an item that particularly interested the city's new fire chief.

Less than two years after his hiring, City Council voted to amend the Cal-Tahoe Joint Powers Agreement, effectively freeing the fire department from the duty of providing EMS care. It remains, as Meston said, one of his greatest achievements.

The chief also is proud of the stability in the department. Internally there are experienced fire officials who can step up and will continue to provide excellent service into the future, Meston said.

Others outside the department echo similar sentiments, while crediting Meston's leadership for the cultivation of personnel within the department.

"I think the city of South Lake Tahoe was extremely fortunate in his coming out of retirement and spending several years really growing and developing not only the fire department but the personnel there," Mayor Brooke Laine told the Tribune.

Outwardly, however, Meston questions how effective he was at one of the most critical roles of any fire chief.

"I think one of the responsibilities of a fire chief is to try and change community behavior. I think one of the responsibilities of a fire chief is to provide some direction to personnel and lead them down a path. I think I've done a good job with my internal capabilities with the organization. … But did I change the community's behavior? I don't know," Meston said.

With California in a cycle of devastating wildfires, the chief does not see the appropriate level of urgency in the community with regards to the threat from wildfires.

As he pointed out in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Camp Fire, Lake Tahoe shares some disturbing similarities with Paradise, the community incinerated by the blaze.

Even more troubling, he said, Paradise was about as prepared as any community in the state for a fire. South Lake Tahoe, on the other hand, is not nearly as prepared despite his efforts to raise awareness.

For that reason, Meston is hesitant to evaluate the successfulness of his tenure as South Lake Tahoe's fire chief.

"I suspect history will ultimately determine whether or not I was successful," he said.