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In New Mexico, David Downey focused on safety improvements for firefighters.

COURTESY PHOTO - David Downey spent more than two decades in the Albuquerque Fire Department, but will move to Hillsboro this month to take over as the citys new fire chief.For David Downey's family, soccer is a big deal.

Downey, who was selected as Hillsboro's new fire chief last week, spends his weekends and vacation days at competitions around the western United States with his two younger boys, ages 16 and 10, as they travel from their home in Albuquerque, N.M., to soccer tournaments to San Diego or Las Vegas.

So it's no surprise that when Downey emerged as a finalist to become the head of Hillsboro's fire department, his sons' passion for soccer was part of the equation.

"Their first question was, 'School is school, but do they have soccer?'" Downey told the Tribune late last week. "I told them, 'You don't know where Hillsboro is, but have you heard of the Portland Timbers?"

They were sold.

Downey was named the city's fire chief on Wednesday, Aug. 23, replacing former Fire Chief Greg Nelson, a 36-year department veteran who retired in January. Deputy Chief Scott Magers, another finalist for the job, has served as interim chief.

Downey is the current fire chief in Albuquerque, where he oversees 700 firefighters in 22 stations across New Mexico's largest city.

Hillsboro, by comparison, is quite small, with only a handful of stations serving a community roughly one-fifth the size. Downey said he looks forward to working in the heart of downtown and maintaining a more intimate working relationship with the firefighters.

Downey was making $138,993 per year in New Mexico, according to the Albuquerque Free Press, but will earn $142,742 in Hillsboro. Downey's first day will be Sept. 25.

"I was impressed with him," said Eric Keim, president of the Hillsboro firefighters' union, who met with Downey last month during the hiring process. "He has a sort of calm leadership presence and seemed like a collaborator. He talked about teamwork application to problem issues in Albuquerque."

Hillsboro City Manager Michael Brown, who hired Downey, said Downey's experience with a larger organization is a plus as Hillsboro continues to grow.

Hillsboro's population is poised to increase by nearly 20 percent in the next 10 years if projections for the South Hillsboro community are accurate.

"He has experience in building new fire stations, he has experience working on building a public safety training facility," Brown said. "... He has a lot experience with training, and that's such a critical aspect of making sure our firefighters are prepared," Brown said.

A growing city

To help mange Hillsboro's expected growth, Downey said he has already discussed plans to possibly move one of the city's five fire stations closer to South Hillsboro or possibly build a sixth station in the years to come.

In the meantime, he said, there are simpler solutions to handle the increased number of people coming to Hillsboro, such as sending smaller groups of firefighters to unknown medical calls, allowing other firefighters and the large, expensive fire engines to stay ready at the station.

"It's that kind of thinking that is different than most fire service models," Downey said. "Most send a large fire apparatus to everything, but are there more efficient means to provide services?"

In New Mexico, Downey developed a reputation as a progressive and proactive leader, focused on improving the lives of firefighters, who are more likely to get cancer than the general public.

He changed protocols that forbid firefighters from tracking dirty turnouts through the fire station after a fire, which can cause disease, and he acquired grant funding that provided bullet proof vests for firefighters who respond to active shooter calls and violent domestic disturbances.

"Those have been huge steps for firefighter safety," said Albuquerque Assistant Fire Chief Gil Santistevan.

Downey also brought in new computer programs to track firefighter training and credentialing, said Santistevan.

A 30-year veteran of the fire department, Santistevan has worked with Downey for years. He had plans to retire a year after Downey was named chief of the department in 2013, but ended up staying on for Downey's entire term as chief, he said, because he respected what Downey brought to the department.

"I'm really sorry to see him go," Santistevan said. "...I have been really pleased with what he's done as chief. I had said I'd stay a year to help with his transition, but I have been so happy with the way things were going I never left."

Downey hasn't identified any areas he would like to change in the Hillsboro department, he said, but he will be spending next few weeks reviewing department guidelines and looking over the recently-signed collective bargaining agreement with the firefighter's union.

One things that won't be changing is the department's status as an independent fire department.

In Washington County, Hillsboro is an island. Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, the start's largest fire agency, recently started serving North Plains and the rest of the former Washington County Fire District 2, which dissolved last year. TVF&R now has jurisdiction over the communities immediately north, south east and west of the city, as well as in Newberg, Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and West Linn.

Downey said it is important to work alongside partners like TVF&R, but stressed that Hillsboro Fire has no intention of joining the state's largest fire agency.

"It was made clear (during the interview process) that independence was very important and the chief should understand they need to support independence, but not isolate the other response agencies," Downey said.

Fell in love with Hillsboro

Downey grew up in Cypress, Calif., a relatively small town in southern California, but he has spent his entire career in New Mexico. He was hired as an Albuquerque firefighter a year after graduating from the fire academy in 1992. Rising through the ranks, he was named fire chief in 2014.

But the job came with a caveat, he said. Albuquerque has a strong mayor system of city government, unlike Hillsboro's system of city manager and city council. The fire chief, Downey said, essentially "serves at the pleasure of the mayor," whose term is set to end in September.

"It's common practice that with a new mayor comes a complete change of city administration," Downey said. "It's likely that, on Dec. 31, I wouldn't have a job."

But it was an eventuality he and his wife prepared for, he said.

The Downey family lives in Rio Rancho, a large suburb of Albuquerque about the size of Hillsboro. Downey said moving to the Northwest presented an opportunity to live and work in the same community, and he said it didn't take long to fall in love with Hillsboro.

"Hillsboro is a dynamic community to serve, and I cannot wait to get started," Downey said. "I was thoroughly impressed by everybody throughout the selection process, by their professionalism and the city's commitment to public safety. I want to play a meaningful role in helping the team succeed in new ways, and I am very grateful for that opportunity."


John William Howard
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