Brenden Espie has worked for only one employer since serving in the U.S. Air Force more than 20 years ago.
As it turns out, the city of Surprise could turn out to be the only one of his career.
“This is it,” said Espie, who was promoted last month to the top spot in the Surprise Fire-Medical Department.
Espie, the city’s new chief, took over from the retired Tom Abbott on Oct. 17, and is awaiting his official oath on Nov. 15 when his wife, Michelle, will pin him at the Surprise City Council meeting that night.
Surprise was barely a city for even a decade when Espie first joined the department. After serving five years in the U.S. Air Force, where he specialized in firefighting and aviation crash recovery, the native of upstate New York came to Surprise in 2001.
He started in Surprise as a firefighter and rose the ranks to fire captain, battalion chief and assistant chief. He was the assistant for seven years before being promoted when Abbott retired.
During his tenure in Surprise, Espie has been instrumental in developing and operating the city’s ambulance service and oversaw the Public Safety Master Plan. He’s also been playing a big role in planning for future Surprise fire station locations.
He owns a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration from Grand Canyon University.
Espie is now in charge of around 190 employees total in the department.
The Surprise Independent recently sat down with Espie in his new office to see how things are going two weeks into the role.
You’ve worked your way up the ladder in Surprise. Did you ever imagine you’d still be here after all these years?
Oh yeah, I hoped so. A fire department is not a department you end up really leaving. Some folks will jump from a smaller to a larger organization or whatever their aspirations or dreams are at the time. I knew I was going to settle in here. For different career benchmarks whether it’s pensions or ranks or whatever it is, most folks stay between 25 and 30 years.
I can remember talking to [former] Chief [Michael] White, and he and I met in his office and he’d say, ‘Gosh, this place will have 12 stations some day.’ We’re getting ready to hire an architect to build No. 9 and we’re talking about 10 right now, so he probably undershot it.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in those two decades?
Obviously, the size of the department and the services that we’re delivering. Adding the ambulance service was a big deal for us. Tripling the size of the department from when I got hired. There were guys and gals who were here before me and if you talk to them and for them it’s just like the increase in the department and what we’re offering and what we’re doing has just been immense in all of our careers here. Honestly, I think the biggest change is just the development of the city, the size of the department and expansion of the services being delivered.
Keeping up with that stuff is tough. Every year we go into budget and we think, ‘This is the year we got it. We’re super organized and ready. We’ve got it’ And then we just don’t because something comes up like growth will be more than we expected. Or this year it’s inflationary costs and delays on materials. But that’s what keeps us coming back, constantly trying to sharpen the proverbial pencil.
How would you describe your style of leadership?
Do you know what, everyone always ask that question. I think that’s the question of the decade. I just really like that whole lead-by-example type scenario. I wouldn’t ask anybody to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. What I’m getting at is I’d rather lead from the trenches rather than lead from the office or the pulpit or whatever. I just feel like in the fire department most of our folks want that person to hold their hand through the project rather than to just do touch and gos with them.
Non-transactional interactions are more involved. In a nutshell, I don’t know what the right word is to describe that. If you don’t want people to be late to work, don’t be late to work. If you want people to wear good uniforms, wear good uniforms. When you see somebody pulled over on the side of the road who needs help, pull over and help them out. We got our own staff cars to drive to and from home or to and from meetings. We have safety vests and radios. I can’t tell you how many cars we’ve pushed off the road or out of an intersection or helped somebody get gas or whatever. If we’re going to drive by them, why would we think our folks who work in the department with us would do any different.
What are the most pressing needs for the fire department?
Now, it’s personnel. And it’s not like we’re way behind because the finance department has done a fantastic job of working with us to kind of like lay out our needs. We’ll just call it a five-year plan basically, a hiring plan. To open a fire station we need about 15 or 16 bodies. So, for a department of our size to do that it’s really hard to hire that many people at once effectively. We can hire eight bodies at once and move them through like the [on the job] process, so the academy is the academy go for three months, four months depending on the holiday schedules. That’s easy for administration to say, ‘We have four bodies, eight bodies, 10 bodies, 20 bodies in the academy, we’re good.’ They come out of the academy, and for 12 more months, all our recruits are on probation. We rotate them to different stations and they work with different supervisors and they see different parts of the city. It’s really hard for a department of our size to effectively manage a one-year probationary period to give these folks what they need. We’re just not large enough to do it properly.
The other thing is if we hired 20 people at once today 25 years from now they’re all gonna be come eligible for retirement on the same day, so we’re just saddling the city with a problem 25 years from now. What we work with Finance on is let’s hire five bodies this year, next year, next year and then maybe four more the following year for that station. We’re spreading that out. We can train them better. It’s a little bit of a less impact on the city and then we’re spreading out the retirement impact across multiple years, so the chiefs 25 years from now are not just saddled with these huge problems down the line.
It’s just getting people to turn out. We used to get 1,500 people turn out for jobs, and we get 200 now. I don’t know what’s going on in the world if it’s because of the private market was paying really well. I don’t know. We’ll see. I don’t know for a little bit of a shift in the economic world or whatever. Fire departments and police departments and probably police more than fire are struggling to get more bodies just to turn out. So, I think that’s going to be our Achilles right now is getting quality people in the department to serve.
How many new fire stations are currently needed and generally where will they go?
Right now in the imminent future, and we’ll call that five years, there’s two fire stations for sure. One of them is already defined. The city just purchased the land and will be housed in partnership with the new community pool. So, that’s at Cactus and Perryville [roads] on the northeast corner. It’s off the freeway, it’s easy access, there’ll be a lot of available parking and for a lot of reasons that spot made sense. The second one right now generally speaking we’re looking in that area of like Deer Valley and Citrus [roads]. Obviously, we don’t own any land there. This is just, “Hey, if we get everything we wanted this would be our mark.” So we’ll see.
What are your plans for expanding the city’s ambulance service?
Right now, for sure we have one contract ambulance in the city, Maricopa ambulance service is a private company. They have an ambulance out here that helps us with the current service demands. Obviously, immediately sometimes in the next 12 months we would like to get our new full-time ambulance in-service and relieve them of their duty out here. They’ve been a huge help to us but it’s our duty to provide that service to the entire city. So we have to get that squared away and it’s some point soon in the northwest part of the city by 163rd and north of Grand — where that new fire station is over there — we’re hoping to look for an ambulance in that part of the city as well.
How do you keep good relations with the community?
The gateway for the fire department to the community is the members out there running calls. When the [emergency] lights go off, we’re headed to somebody’s worst day. So most of the time those folks when we were engaging in we’re engaging them with her eyes wide open. What I mean by that is if I go to the grocery store and I see you there tomorrow you’ll be paying attention to me but you also be looking at people around you and things on your grocery list so while that interaction is captured a lot of it is lost because your eyes aren’t wide open, you’re just there. So for us when we engage with people usually it’s with eyes by open so they see everything and it’s committed to memory.
So that’s where we always try to go the extra distance to help whatever it is. If we go for a fall injury and somebody just needs a sandwich, make them a sandwich. We’ve got crews that come back, reported members of the community that didn’t have air conditioning because their air conditioning of their house was bad and the charities of the Surprise Fire Charities, which is a separate entity from the fire department, these crew members come back and go to the charities team and the charities go in and buy them an air conditioner to get their house back online.
It’s that type of stuff right there it’s really hard to put a value on that. Because that person now is our best advocate now. They’re out there telling the world what good people we are and we really are good people. But me telling you that is a lot different than a resident telling you that. It’s just different when it’s coming from somebody else, so that’s I think how we really spike are our numbers with the community and the residents is that positive interaction is what people want to know. They wanna know we’re there and we’re trying to put their best interest at the forefront all the time.
I’m going to talk to a couple of the other battalion chiefs and the office chief and I wanna see if we can’t get some Christmas lights on the firetruck this year for the month of December. It’s little, it’s subtle, but it’s warming to see that stuff. It’s engaging.
Jason Stone can be reached at email@example.com. Visit yourvalley.net.