Interview: Berkeley Native, Iraq War Vet & Alameda County Fire Division Chief Dave Winnacker

Published On November 10, 2017 | By Rob Arias | In the Neighborhood, Interviews, Neighbor Spotlight

We caught up with Alameda County Fire Division Chief David Winnacker, fresh off a recent deployment to help battle the Sonoma wildfires, for an exclusive Interview. Winnacker is a local boy from Berkeley who joined the Marines out of college. He was deployed to Iraq after 9-11 before settling into a career in firefighting.

Winnacker was promoted from a Battalion Chief to the Division Chief of Special Operations in 2016. The position’s responsibility includes oversight and leadership of Special Operations programs, and command over the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and City of Emeryville agencies.

It’s been a challenging year plus for our local fire services. From battling two “career” blazes at 3800 San Pablo — to the recent Sonoma wildfires. Winnacker opens up on the challenges of containing these blazes, how he defines “bravery” and what we can do to prepare for the next major disaster in our city.

This interview has been edited for clarity.


Winnacker in front of the recently renovated Station 34 on Powell.

Interview: Alameda County Fire Division Chief Dave Winnacker

EE: E’ville Eye Editor Rob Arias here at Station 34 on Powell with Dave Winnacker. Dave is an East Bay native, a marine, a UCSB Gaucho, father, Division Chief of Special Operations for ACFD … who just happens to be the 2017 winner of Emeryville’s shortest triathlon ever. So where does winning the shortest triathlon rank in your list of highest achievements?

DW: I’m glad you asked, because if you hadn’t, I would have found a way to work it into the interview. I think the best analogy would be Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, and the only difference was, really, is that he had Buzz Aldrin right behind him, and as you saw, I was all alone when we got to the finish line, so it ranks right up there, but in all seriousness, it was a great event, and I really appreciated the city council making that the city-wide challenge and the opportunity to come out and test our mettle against one another on the city staff.

Winnaker accepting the Shortest Triathlon first place plaque (Photo: SFontheBay.com).

EE: Ha! So, was there any exchange of money?

DW: No, this was strictly bragging rights.

EE: So you’re a Berkeley native that didn’t stray too far. What is it about the Bay Area and East Bay in particular that has kept you rooted?

DW: I think, as with anywhere, you can’t beat home, and so having grown up here, my family is still here, my friends are all here. I’ve lived a number of other places, and none of them quite matched up to home, both from a cultural environment, the weather, and then just being comfortable in the area and having deep roots The first chance we had, my wife and I moved back and bought a house. This is where we wanted to raise our kids.

EE: Tell us something we might not know about yourself, a hobby, a hidden talent, a piece of family background.

DW: The best piece of family background I think is appropriate, my parents are both from the East Coast, from Long Island and greater D.C., and for them, Berkeley was as far away from that as you could get. They came to Cal for graduate school in the 60s and never left, so we always joke that that was the best they could do, the farthest away they could move, and the farthest away I could move was to join the Marine Corps, yet, unfortunately, I was unable to follow through and move back to the East Coast to make it a full circle. That was without leaving this area, that was the best I could do to go in the opposite direction.

EE: So, was it after college at U.C. Santa Barbara that you enrolled in the Marines?

DW: I was commissioned. While I was at U.C. Santa Barbara, I was involved in the officer candidate school program for the Marine Corps.

EE: Officer candidate school program? Is that like R.O.P.?

DW: It’s similar, but you only go during the summers. I was an athlete. I played lacrosse at Santa Barbara, and so I was very focused on my student athlete endeavors, but during the summers, I went to officer candidate school, and then when I graduated, I got my diploma on Saturday, and on Sunday, I became a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. There was a certainty to it that I knew exactly what I was going to do next. I didn’t have that struggle of what was to follow getting a BA in History.

The second part of it was it allowed me to continue doing what I had loved about my student athlete experience, which was being part of a team focused on a broader goal, service above self, pulling together, and that sense of accomplishment a team working together can achieve. I found that in the Marine Corps, and then, as I was realizing that there were things other than the Marine Corps I wanted to do in the long-term, I sort of stumbled into the fire service, and it was many of those same elements that attracted me to it, the fire service, that is, that they were a team working together, a greater cause, something bigger than yourself, serving others, helping those in need, and being able to use your skill, your energy, your talent for good, and that good being pretty easy to define. One of the things I’ve always wanted to be able to say was that I didn’t have to explain what my job was, and it seems between those, I’ve hit where with a single word you can encapsulate what it is you do on a daily basis for most people.

EE: So you’re a Marine who saw combat as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Tell us how this helped shape your path toward being a firefighter.

DW: I had wrapped up my four years of obligated service and had gotten out. I submitted my resignation papers effective September 18, 2001. Those had been submitted in advance, obviously, so after 9/11, I was already on a trajectory. I had already resigned. When the Stop-Loss [policy] kicked in, which prevented anyone from getting out, that missed me by about 30 days, so I had already gotten out of the Marine Corps, had come home. I had just recently gotten married to my college sweetheart. We had deliberately waited until I was out of the Marine Corps to do that.

Ironically, to avoid becoming nostalgic about how good the Marine Corps had been, I joined a reserve unit in San Bruno, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, which was mobilized 30 days after I joined it, and I went right back down to Camp Pendleton as a mobilized reservist, where we spent a year doing Homeland Security stuff, and then we were extended and attached to First Marines for the invasion. I was actually there as a mobilized reservist, but I had been a reservist in a non-activated status for less than a month at the time. It was just sort of fortuitous, because with the way your career path falls, had I stayed in, I would have been in an administrative billet during that timeframe, and had I joined any other reserve unit, I would have been at home as a reservist watching it on TV. Instead, I was there for the invasion. We crossed the Iraq border in the first couple of days and were involved in the capture of Baghdad.

Winnacker at a checkpoint just outside Baghdad in 2003.

EE: Wow, so just 30 days totally changed your life’s trajectory. When you’re overseas, I’m assuming there are some conversations about ‘what are you going to do when you get back home?’ Is this when you started to consider a profession in firefighting?

DW: While I was deployed with that reserve unit, which was made up all of local young men from the Bay Area, because reserves are geographically associated, a number of them either were or were striving to become firefighters, and that sort of opened my eyes. They spoke glowingly about the camaraderie and the sense of service, and those sort of things, which captured what I wanted to do next, but I just didn’t know how to achieve that. I didn’t realize firefighting really existed. It wasn’t something I’d been exposed to. I have no family background, and I didn’t know any firefighters, and so the exposure to those guys in our deployed timeframe kind of set the hook that hey, this is something I should do. When I got back from Iraq in the summer of ’03, I decided I was going to become a firefighter and fast-tracked myself into the profession.

I’ve been deployed as a reservist twice. The first time was for 27 months. The second time was for 13 months, when I went to Africa in 2011, and on the back half, I would say probably the last six months of those deployments, the conversation of what you’re going to do next is the defining topic, because only a very few of these Marines are old enough and established enough to have a real career. Everyone else is either a student or was working an hourly job of some kind, and the conversation of what next dominates everything, and in the case of the deployment in Iraq, it was more amplified, because there was no smart phones, there were no cell phones, there was no internet, there were no computers. Mail was taking two to three weeks each way, so a round trip letter was six weeks at that point.

Your only source of information for the speculating, the daydreaming, and the planning of what comes next was your fellow Marines. You spend a lot of time asking, hey, what do you do. Then, out of that, you would start to sort through the pile of what everyone else was doing and what sounded good, and the ones that made sense for me were the folks, the guys who were firefighters. That resonated with me. That sounds like something I would like and would be good at.

Winnacker’s platoon “The Punishers” – Baghdad 2003.

EE: You mentioned you were deployed to Africa in 2011 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom to help our global fight against the war on terror. What can you tell us about this experience, and what did the team accomplish for our country?

DW: I was the executive officer, which is essentially the number two, special purpose MAGTF, Marine Air Ground Task Force Africa, which was constituted from enablers from across Marine forces reserve and led by the command element of Fourth Force Reconnaissance Company, which is a reserve force reconnaissance unit in Alameda, where I served as the XO, and later as the CO. We constituted this mashup of a little bit of everything. We had reconnaissance Marines that you would refer to as the shooters. We had guys that repaired small engines, motor transport operators, logisticians, you name it. What the idea behind the mission was theater security operation, which is, in Africa, is primarily focused on logistics, so we sent small teams that were tailored to the requirement and what the country was willing to accept, and every country had some different parameters, down to these countries in Africa for between five days and six weeks, depending on what the requirements were. We were headquartered out of Sicily.

Interestingly, the demand signal was not for things you would typically associated with Marines, like shooting things. The demand signal was for small motor repair and motor transport and generator repairmen. Our generator repairer was constantly getting on and off planes, because his services were needed everywhere. We plugged our guys in supporting our African partners primarily in the logistics standpoint.

Really great mission, where you’d send this small group of Marines far off into the hinterland of an African country by themselves for a period of time, and you’re crossing your fingers to some degree that if something goes wrong, it’s going to go really wrong, and with no exception, the Marines all just rose to the occasion, were brilliant, and it was a great- one, it was gratifying, and two, it was a lesson learned about when you entrust and empower your subordinates, you often get great results, and if you treat them as adults and make sure they understand the expectations and the consequences of failure, without exception, they all rose to the occasion and were just absolutely fantastic.

EE: So it was when you got back from Iraq in 2003 that you began your career path into firefighting and I’m sure they were welcomed considering your background.

DW: Right. I got back in the summer of 2003. I went down to UCLA for an abbreviated EMT course, and then I started taking every fire test in the state, and I was hired by the Fresno City Fire Department, and I commuted from Albany to Fresno for almost three years and continued to test. In 2006, I was hired by the Newark Fire Department, which then was later consolidated into Alameda County. That’s how I ultimately ended up in Emeryville.

EE: What characteristics do you think make a good firefighter?

DW: The ability to follow simple instructions, because everything we do- we’re not building pianos. Everything we do in the fire service is based on some commonly understood tactics, techniques, and procedures, and if you have those in your toolbox, and as you show up at an incident, which can be complex and dynamic, you open your toolbox and you use the correct tools, and you break it down into a series of manageable chunks. We have a joke about how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

As an example, the large fires on San Pablo Avenue, huge, complex, dynamic, hundreds of people … but you can break it down to a series of component parts, each one of which was manageable, and you’re surrounded by other people who have the same tactics, techniques, and procedures in their toolbox, and you have shared terminology and shared experience and shared expectation about how the incident would be managed, so you can delegate and identify people to take different portions of it, and you can turn it into a modular incident, where you take the right person and the right equipment and you apply them against that problem, and that problem is then set aside.

You, essentially, as the incident commander, you don’t need to worry about that problem anymore because you have some really bright people working on it, and they’re going to go do good things, and then you move on to the next one, and so you establish some overarching objectives, and then you start apportioning resources, and then, in some degree, the problem just sort of solves itself, because you have really sharp people working on it.

To that point, the ability to follow simple instructions, teamwork, the ability to trust your peers, those that are to your right and to your left. If you have trust and you have the ability to use the equipment, which is a tactical level task, if you can put on your equipment and use it and trust those around you, you’re 90 percent of the way towards solving the problem, and then it’s a matter of experience. The more times you’ve seen these things, the more slides you have in your tray, the simpler it becomes to solve, because you’re not overwhelmed by that initial presentation of oh, my gosh, this is enormous.

EE: Do you think ‘bravery’ is something you and other first responders are born with, or does it come with discipline and training, or are there other criteria?

DW: I don’t know that bravery’s the right word, because bravery is on a sliding scale based on your comfort level. For you to move across the threshold of being brave, it had to be something you were either overwhelmed or not trained for, not equipped for, not prepared, enormous personal risk, those sorts of things, and you overcome that. In the act of overcoming that, you achieve the status of being brave or demonstrating bravery. Most of what we do doesn’t rise to that level because we are trained, equipped, and prepared for it, and so the training and equipping and preparing leads you to that moment where, it’s not routine, but it’s getting close.

It’s an emergency, but we’re approaching in a non-emergent manner in that we’re not taking unnecessary risks. We’re not wading into the unknown. We’re staying within our procedures, the parameters of our equipment, and the operating ability of our crews, and so there is some element of risk, but I think that is all buffered by the fact that you’re trained and equipped for it, and you’re surrounded by other people who are doing the same thing, so there’s a degree of normalcy that comes across the fire scene.

When we achieve that state when we’ve achieved a degree of normalcy and calmness, that’s where the real brilliance comes out, because that’s where things are happening. There’s a saying, smooth is fast. When you’re in that crisis mode and you’re going a million miles an hour, you make little mistakes that slow you down. When you’re in that smooth, calm deportment, things are just happening, then it just occurs so well, and when you listen to the radio traffic on a well-run incident, everyone’s calm. All the transmissions are clear and concise. Meanwhile, it’s a raging inferno, but the way the people, their demeanor and deportment suggests that there’s a calmness, and that’s what we strive for. We try to stay away from anything that would require bravery and keep it within things that we’re prepared and equipped for.

We’re very fortunate. In this day and age, if you look at the scope of modern firefighting, we’ve achieved a level of equipment, of safety, and training that’s unparalleled anywhere before in our history, and so we’re so well prepared now for these incidents, and we’re so well-trained, and the science behind it is so much better understood now than it once was, that we have a very good idea of what we’re getting into. Looking at evolving or emerging areas of study, like flow paths and fire spread and so forth, understanding those allows us to take a much more clinical approach to fire suppression activities.

As well, most of what we do is not fire suppression. We do a lot of EMS and care for the sick and injured and so forth, and there, you look at this very interesting confluence of technical capacity as well as empathy. If you are able to have and demonstrate empathy for your patients and for those who need your care, everything goes better. You take empathy plus technical capability within the EMS sphere, now you’re starting to get to the ideal that we strive to achieve. We’re able to provide superior care in an empathetic manner that makes the patient believe that we care about their concerns and their problems, and that’s really what we’re striving to reach.

EE: There’s new technology coming online all the time that are better preparing your profession for combatting fires. Drones that you are using to map hot spots, mapping tools that incorporate Virtual Reality … what are some other technology that you see coming online that are going to assist your job?

DW: I think the next big step is going to be having to do within the GIS sphere and doing the preplanning and the mapping of the built environment, so that we are now, in the age of big data, if Google maps can give you a 3-D representation on your smartphone to just an average Joe walking down the street, our ability to access that information and then to start to do some of the interior mapping of what the space looks like for target hazards. Historically, we’ve had an actual map of books in the engine. The guy in the back would be flipping through the apartment book to find the hand-drawn sketch of where the FTCs and hydrants were, and that’s within my career, and I haven’t been doing this that long.

Where we are getting now- and we all had a Thomas Brother’s map book. That was just standard. I think we are very close to a breakthrough to where we have the external mapping in a 3-dimensional representation, access through a smart device, and then being able to overlay the interior mapping and occupant loads and those sort of things, I think that’s the next big step, and that, for both individual daily response as well as for responses in a mass disaster setting, after the big earthquake or a catastrophic fire or weather event or something like that, our ability to quickly pull up an accurate representation of the area affected and then place the layers showing population, at-risk individuals, high hazard areas, those sort of things, I think that’s the next big step, and there’s a lot of companies working on it, and we’re fortunate that we’re here in the cradle of technology. If it’s going to get rolled out anywhere, it’s probably going to be here first. We look forward to being part of that conversation.

Winnacker referred to 3800 San Pablo as a “career” fire.

EE: For a fire like 3800 San Pablo that turned out to be a 6-alarm fire, walk us through when you get that call, when that bell rings, what instincts kick in?

DW: I was at home, because I’m on a 40-hour administrative setting now, so I was at home. It was my shift day, and so I got a little ding on my phone at 2:30 am that there was a structure fire. If it’s a normal structure fire, the battalion chief handles it and there’s not a response requirement on just sort of a normal house fire. I rolled over to hit the button to listen to the radio, and the very first thing I heard was dispatch saying Oakland has just called a third alarm, and so now it’s okay, well, I’ve got to get there, and I’ve got to get there now. At that time, I was still very, very new to being at the 40-hour assignment, so up until then, my previous fire service career, any call for service, I had been in the fire station, and everything about a fire station is specifically engineered and designed to get you on the engine and out the door in 60 seconds. All of your stuff is set up just so. You develop a routine so that, when you do get a call in the middle of the night, and you’re asleep, you just fall into the routine and off you go.

But I’m at home, and there is no routine for this, because it’s new, and I’m bumbling around trying to find my pants. I’m in the garage, and there’s no fire engine in the garage, and that’s kind of weird, and where’s the rest of my crew. At this point, I’m finally waking up to realize uh-oh, get in my truck.

EE: No time to brew coffee, adrenaline is your caffeine at this point.

DW: Absolutely. Next thing you know, I’m going lights and sirens down San Pablo, and as I took the turn onto San Pablo at Gilman, I could see the glow from the fire. They’re already on the scene. I’m listening to the radio traffic. It’s fortunate that I’ve got the five minutes it took me to get down San Pablo to listen to the radio traffic and to get caught up on what’s happening and who’s doing what, and start to build that mental picture of what’s on scene. Then, I arrived on scene. I went straight to the command post. There was two Oakland battalion chiefs and our battalion four, and I’m face to face with hem, and we did a very quick huddle and came up with assignments. You’re going to do this, you’re going to do this. We’re going to do that.

We split it up, so that we have an apportionment of assignments so that we didn’t have duplication of effort. Then, within each one of our portions of the fire, then we just went to work on solving the problems one at a time. From a command perspective, it’s linear in nature, this, then this, then this, and what makes that work, though, is that each one of the crews, for them, they’re being assigned in parallel, so they’re not waiting for the previous task to be accomplished. Then we just start knocking down the tasks and then got into this regular routine of check on what my area was, check on their progress, check on resource needs, go and touch base with my peer from Oakland, who was on the opposite side of the fire, see what he needed, see what progress he was making, and start shifting resources around, make up dates, do it again. We just got into this …

EE: Rhythm?

DW: Yes, exactly. Wash, spin, repeat cycle until we got it down, and then you just start making progress, and that’s where the fact that all of the firefighters and the crews, the functional element of the crews, are so competent and so good at what they do that they required almost no oversight at the task level. Gave them the assignment, you went on to do something else, and you came back to check how they’re doing on their assignment, and they’re also really good at staying in their lane.

You tell a firefighter to knock down a door, they’re going to keep knocking until that door falls down or you tell them to stop. That’s tremendously helpful that no one- we call it freelancing. No one’s wandering around looking for something to do. Everyone gets their assignment, and they stay on their assignment, and when they’re done with their assignment, they come and report for another assignment, and so from a command and control standpoint, it’s much easier to handle than it would appear from the outside, because you don’t have to have a need to get this big gather everyone up and explain what we’re going to do. You can do it on the fly, because you have that shared experience and common terminology and similar understanding about how the problem should be solved.

Winnacker discusses containment strategy with his squad.

EE: When the second fire happened, you must have just been thinking, like the rest of us, “Is this really happening again?”

DW: Yes, I think everyone’s first response was oh, that’s strange that a tweet or an update from a year ago or an email got resent. Because what are the odds?

EE: Having defeated that fire once, was it like almost a replay of the second one? Did you know exactly what to do now?

DW: A lot of the same people were involved. Everyone knew where it was. Everyone knew the intersection between Apgar and West Mac where those came- because that street grid there is a little odd.

It is, and then the city line, obviously, runs right through the middle, and as a result of the first one, everyone knew exactly where those lines and the hydrants were and what the threats were, and the threat to the apartment buildings across the street and to the townhouses, because we crawled all over it one year prior in what was a career fire the first time as well as the second time.

The first one was the biggest fire the Alameda County fire department had ever fought, most alarms, so that was the big one, and out of that, there was, obviously, a detailed after-action, a lot of lessons learned. We put a lot of thought internally into how we could do things differently the next time around, and a lot of that was captured so that the next time, people who responded were familiar with the setting and scene, and it didn’t hurt that there were a number of the same people on both fires.

EE: For every fire, something goes back into the knowledge bank, and you’re more prepared for next time.

DW: Absolutely, and there’s a formal and informal process for that. Informally, at the end of the fire, there’s a quick gathering, and then the next morning, when you’re going off duty and you’re having a cup of coffee with your relief, you share, hey, we did this, we did that. This worked. Then, there’s a formal after-action on a large-scale where you get everyone together for a post-incident evaluation, and we review what worked and what didn’t. Out of that, you see recommendations for equipment changes, for policy changes, for training, those sort of things, so we try to learn from every one of those fires, and particularly on the big ones, which just don’t happen that often. That’s not a daily event.

EE: Emeryville, it’s kind of a funky city, the shape of it, the way it’s bisected. You have two fire stations that you’re in control, 35 and 34, the other one being, of course, on Hollis, what are the unique challenges of defending a city like Emeryville?

DW: Emeryville is unique. It doesn’t take a whole lot of looking into the history. I remember growing up, Emeryville was an industrial wasteland. There was nothing here. Watergate predates me by a couple of years, and that’s it. Prior to that, the population of Emeryville was less than 2,000, just that little slice of the triangle and a few places where there were some homes sort of bleed over from Oakland, but the rest of it was just industrial, and the town has that rapid change through the ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s a little bit of an unsettled feel, I think, to the new town, which is good, and Emeryville is probably the poster child for urban renewal and redevelopment and reinvention. You go from a steel mill, a paraffin plant, and a slaughter-house to biotech and high-end hipster condos. I mean, that’s a pretty sudden change. I laughed at your National Night Out party. That used to be a slaughter-house, next to the paint factory. Across the street from there, there was a metal recycling plant and a giant slag pile.

Vintage photos adorn Winnacker’s office at Station 34.

Emeryville’s a really interesting town, and it’s evolving, and it presents some urban challenges that we don’t see in the other parts of the Alameda County Fire Department jurisdiction. If you look at the infill, vertical growth, tight, blind intersections, it’s a little thing, but if you look at where the buildings are in Emeryville, they’re all right up to the public r right of way, so every one of those intersections is blind, so when a fire engine is moving down the street, you can’t see the intersection. You have to assume that there is a minivan full of preschoolers coming barreling down the street the other way, and so you have to proceed with due regard and with adequate caution.

In the suburban setting, there’s great sightlines. Everything’s set back. You can see around the corners no problem. The build environment in Emeryville is very, very different, and then there’s a lot of new construction.

New construction, in many ways, is easier, because it’s so engineered, and the plans have been reviewed and are up to modern codes, and especially in some of the biotech and so forth, very, very highly engineered with on-site managers and so forth, but if you look around the city, nestled in here and there are these legacy buildings that have been converted to some other use, some live-work spaces that have an industrial heritage, and those buildings are the ones that are really concerning, because they were built for something else.

As an example, or some of the loft space across from Station 35. Some of those old industrial spaces, unreinforced masonry that have been adapted for other things. Those present unique challenges. Each building presents a unique challenge, and every time a different occupant has moved in, that building’s been altered. The original plans, the original engineering, the original design considerations have been altered, not always with the big picture in mind.

That’s the sort of thing that keeps us on our toes and keeps us out and about, trying to know our community so that at the company level, each company officer just knows the building. When they pull up, they look at the building, and they have a mental map of what’s in there, what the hazards are, what the concerns are, what the areas of danger, what the occupant load, whether or not there’s people sleeping in there.

If you pull up at an industrial-looking building at two in the morning, it’s not normal for it to be occupied, unless it’s a converted live/work space. The approach to a building that’s occupied in the middle of the night is very different from the approach to industrial spaces unoccupied, as far as the life safety threat and what risks we will take to make an entry and to confirm that it’s clear.

EE: Your unit was deployed to the recently contained Sonoma wildfires as part of a mutual aid agreement with other countries. Tell us about your assignment, and the difference between fighting fires in urban settings and more rural settings.

DW: In Emeryville, obviously, there’s no wildland or urban interface, and there’s no grass to speak of. There’s no threat of a wildfire. However, on any given day, out in the Altamont, which is also part of the Alameda County Fire Department’s jurisdiction, an unincorporated county, in summer, we’ll have several grassfires out there on any given day, so on any given day, any of our crews can be shifted anywhere, and the members can be moved around, so that’s just part of our culture and part of our skillset, and something that we exercise regularly, particularly out in the East County, so the transition from wildland to urban is seamless. It’s just part of the job. You have two separate bags. One’s got your structural turnout, PP Unit, and your other has your wildland gear, and you make sure you have the right bag open when you’re going to the call.

As far as the assignment, I was deployed as a strike team leader trainee, so the assistant strike team leader, essentially, with a combination of thee Alameda County fire engines, one from Fremont, and one from Livermore-Pleasanton. We deployed late Sunday night direct to the fires, and when we got up there, it was a fast-moving and dynamic scene. The incident command system was just getting established and was rapidly expanding. However, there’s some limits to how fast you can expand, so we were given an assignment that was general in nature, and at that point, we looked for things that were on fire, and we went and tried to stop them from spreading.

More than once, there were more things that required resources than we had resources, and we had to triage, and once again, the crews were all just brilliant, so that evolved from Sunday night through about Wednesday. It was just sort of this running gunfight with the fire as the fire kept spreading, and we ended up very, very far to the east. Just kept being bumped out trying to stay ahead. At one point, we had neither fed nor watered the crews. We hadn’t been able to maintain the engines. We were getting to the point where we were going to need a break, and the crews all kept – the individuals, the personnel, all rose to the occasion. It was the engines that were starting to become the weak link, and we had to take a break to get them some maintenance and keep them back in the mix, which is pretty remarkable.

EE: The humans outlasted the machines in that case.

DW: We’re not normally set up for 72 to 96 hours of continuous operations, but that’s what was called for, and the crews all rose to the occasion and did great things. There was a very clear sense that if we stopped, there was no one there to replace us, and no one wanted to stop. None of the crews wanted to take a break, because they knew if they took a break, the firefighting efforts would cease, and it was an environment where if you stopped, more houses were going to burn, and they didn’t want that to happen, so they just kept working until I guess about Thursday or so we got some relief, and we were able to get them down off the hill to get the rigs maintained, get them some sleep, and then we got them right back into the mix the following day.

It was a great experience. It was very dynamic, very fast-paced, lots and lots of interagency cooperation at all levels. There is a personality, human interaction element to all of these things that you find some guy you never met before on the hood of his truck with a fire barreling down the hill, you make some quick, snap decisions, get his idea how what he’s going to do to coordinate it, and then go out and do good things. That was very, very dynamic, I think, is the best way of putting it.

EE: I think that everybody just had an immense sense of pride for what you guys do, and that probably- not that you need any more gratification, but clearly, the sentiment of the entire population is just very appreciative of what you guys do, so thank you for that.

DW: It’s appreciated. I’d say there’s an innate sense of gratification that comes from this fire’s coming barreling down the hill like a freight train, and there’s some houses there, and they’re going to burn, and we were able to deploy our equipment, set up, make the save, and – we didn’t stop the fire. The fire blew right by, but we were able to protect those houses, and you can say with absolute certainty, those houses would not be standing had those crews not performed brilliantly in adverse conditions. Then, the best part, roll up the hose, bounce down to the next one. Got back in front of the fire, here it comes again, and just sort of kept doing that, and without complaint. No complaints, no concerns. They just kept charging.

EE: Exhaustion. Adrenaline will only take you so far.

DW: Apparently, we didn’t get to the point that it wouldn’t take you any farther. Food and drinking water was in short supply. I had basically snacks for the first week and I don’t eat wheat.

EE: You must have wrecked your diet. You’re going to have to burn those off, you know, with the next shortest triathlon [laughter].

DW: No, I managed to stick with it, but I was foraging for nuts and berries and wandering around looking for acorns to munch on. It’s a funny sidebar, but just all those creature comfort things that sometimes can be a requirement, in this case, they weren’t available, and so we just pressed on. It was a real privilege to be serving there with those crews and watching them rise to the occasion and knowing that their actions saved homes that otherwise would have burned. We took real pride in that and real gratification, and then you come down off the hill, and we interacted with some of the people who were evacuated, and just having that first-hand exposure to what it was like for them to–

In the middle of the night, one lady was explaining to me that she’s a retiree. She got up to go to the bathroom about eleven or so at night, and she had a wall in her bathroom out of glass blocks, and there was just this orange glow coming through them, and she opened the door, and the fire was a block away, and she and her husband jumped in the car and were gone. A lifetime worth of things were incinerated. They had time to grab nothing. In their night clothes, they jumped in their car and fled for their lives, so to have that exposure and that interaction to what a lifechanging event this was for the people who were affected by it was very sobering and also a great reminder that is there anything else we can do? We’ll do anything we possibly can, and there is no time for other concerns. We have the equipment.

We’re in the right time and the right place to make a difference, and gosh darn it, we’re going to do the absolute best we can. That was a really- in the midst of a terrible event, it was a great experience to be around that and to know that we did everything we possibly could.

EE: Wow. We were talking about 3800 San Pablo being like a career fire, and the Sonoma fire one of the biggest the state’s ever seen, so you’ve experienced three “career” fires in just a very short time span.

DW: It’s been a busy year. Things could definitely slow down a bit. That’s one of the- and I hate to say the word advantages, and let me caveat that, when you’re in the emergency response business, things that require an emergency response, those are highlights of the career, so let me be careful to say that it’s not- we very much recognize the impact and the cost and the pain that those things bring to the people who are affected by it, but we also got into this line of work in order to be- that’s a bad example. We don’t say line of work anymore, right.

I also got into this profession because I wanted to be able to be there at that moment of the crux to try to make a difference, and one of the great opportunities of the county fire department, because it’s so wide-ranging, because it’s so large and has tentacles in so many different areas, that if there is a major event, there is a very good chance that I’m going to get to be there, and there is a job satisfaction that comes with that. Being able to be at the moment, at the crux, being able to do your best to make it better, rather than watching it on TV in the abstract, that is an exciting part of the job for me.

Fundamentally, it’s a really enjoyable job, and obviously, being able to help people in their time of need is about as gratifying as it gets, and that ‘heat’ draws out the best in people, both the responders and bystanders or people who are affected by it. I find that part of the job incredibly gratifying.

EE: The next disaster is not a matter of if, but when. Talk to us about being prepared and what the Alameda County Fire Department is doing through the local hazard mitigation plan update that you guys are working on.

DW: There will be a next disaster, and no one knows what it’s going to be, so we always recommend universal precaution, things that no matter what it’s going to be are going to put you in good stead. That’s 72 hours’ worth of food, water, medications. Having that ability to be self-sufficient for 72 hours, be in the immediate aftermath of a region-wide emergency, there’s not much help coming. We’re going to be very isolated here, surrounded by freeways that are built on fill. We’re going to be isolated. That ability to fend for yourself for 72 hours is a great first step.

Then, little things like making sure your car is always full or close to full of fuel, because if there’s a widespread emergency and you can’t get gas, and your car is at a quarter tank, your ability to move yourself out of the disaster area just got severely hampered, and it’s a no-cost item, because you’re going to buy that gas anyway.

Little things like that, or making sure you have the ability to charge a cell phone, or the communications plan if you and your family work in different areas. I remember in ’89, my parents worked in the city, and I was a high school freshman at Berkley High, and there was an earthquake, and part of the bridge had collapsed. For all I knew, my dad had been in the bridge collapse. I was at football practice. I was too young to know any better, so I wasn’t too worried about it, but in hindsight, I had no idea where my parents were for some period of time, and we didn’t have a plan for how we were going to communicate from San Francisco.

In Napa, because the power was out, there was no cell phone service up there period for the first couple of days. Everyone pulled out their phone to tell everyone they’re okay and realized it didn’t work. What are you alternatives, and what are some of the simple things like what neighboring area are you- you’re not going to meet, but you’re going to post your note, or whatever the case was, so building out that resilient community, and I think community in this case is at the microlevel, so in our neighborhood, it’s probably your building or your block, and what’s your building’s plan that you guys, as a building can fend for yourself for 72 hours, and that you know, within your building, who the most vulnerable are. Who, in your building, do you need to check on or help or might not be able to get down.

I think of, in this current environment, if something happened during a heat wave, there are going to be people who just need to be gotten out of their apartments, because it’s going to be too hot, and you and your neighbors can do that. You might not be able to access the broader system to ask for that specialized help, so I think that resilient community, really at the neighborhood or building level- and Emeryville is fortunate in some ways, it’s so dense, that getting to know your neighbors involves not a whole lot of distance. It’s not like you’re walking down a long suburban block. You could probably just hang out at the mailbox at about 5 o’clock on a weekday and see most of your neighbors as they came home, or whatever trash day is.

Knowing your community and knowing who in your community needs help, so your community becomes more resilient and more able to prepare and more able to fend for themselves for that short period of time. I think the last one, then, is really the technology piece, recognizing that there may be a period of time where there is no technology available, and looking at how much of your emergency plan is reliant on technology, and how much of your constant need to know is fed by technology.

Think about the mental piece and the mental preparedness. If your mental preparedness is all based on your ability to get real-time updates on what’s happening, you’re going to be in a very bad space when that system gets shut off, and so just doing some of that mental preparedness of what am I going to do if I’m unable to communicate with the outside world, and I have a degree of unknown and uncertainty surrounding me. Okay, these are the things I’m going to do. This is who I’m going to engage with in my neighborhood. This is how I’m going to share information. This is who I’m going to try to interface with. This is who I’m going to tell what I know to to help spread information.

The mental piece, I think, is often overlooked. We’re always very focused on getting a backpack with some toilet paper and water in it. Got it, do that. Have your go bag. Have your 72 hours of supplies, but also the mental piece, I think, is really worth looking at, and I believe one of the great crutches to help you out in that immediate aftermath is the community aspect, and you and your neighbors bonding together and leaning on each other for both mental and physical support to create your own little resilient community in the immediate aftermath of an emergency.

EE: If you’re lucky enough to survive the big one, the zombie apocalypse or whatever, you need be prepared for the next 72 hours.

DW: It’s something you should probably be doing anyway, just as a good neighbor, and you don’t want to start trying to build those relationships after everything just started shaking and there’s dust in the air. If you have those preestablished relationships, and you know each other, and you have some idea of what people’s strengths and capabilities and backgrounds are, then it’s going to be much easier to marshal those resources that are already resident within your community and put them to work. I’m going to be here. I might be on my bike, because the freeways are buckled, and you’ll see me riding around town on my mountain bike with a radio trying to make it work, but there’s just not a whole lot of help coming to Emeryville in the event of a large-scale emergency, because we are so isolated down here, and the freeways that lead into Emeryville are all susceptible to collapse. On this side- as you know, the reason this fire station exists is we’re on the wrong side of the freeway here. There’s portions of Emeryville that have potential to be cut off, and that applies to the fire stations as well. It’s one of the things we put a lot of thought into, is how can these fire stations operate as independent islands for a period of time.

Winnacker with Retired Emeryville Fire Chief and World War II Army Veteran Henry Lyman.

EE: Are there any causes that you personally support that you would like residents to consider contributing to?

DW: I think, for me, everything’s local, and Emeryville certainly has at-risk populations, and as Emeryville evolves and as the high rises go up, there is an older element to the Emeryville population I think it’s easy to forget about, so I would encourage everybody to engage through your favorite local civic organization within your own community because, one, I think it’s a good idea, and two, just from a practical standpoint, you get to know your neighbors in your area, who is where, and there are plenty of issues world-wide that need to be addressed, but there’s plenty of issues right here at home. There are people within the city who could certainly use some help, and I love to see in any city where people are connecting grounded to their city and they know those who were here before they came.

The Alameda County Fire Department hosts its annual Christmas Dinner with ECAP for community members in need.

About The Author

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who moved to Emeryville in 2003. A new parent in the community, he can often be seen walking his French Bulldog rescue "Fiona" around his Park Avenue District neighborhood, traversing the greenway on his bike or enjoying his favorite Emeryville small businesses. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

2 Responses to Interview: Berkeley Native, Iraq War Vet & Alameda County Fire Division Chief Dave Winnacker

  1. Betty Tyler says:

    One of the best interviews I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  2. Betsy Cooley says:

    Really fascinating interview. Thanks, Dave, for all of your service in the Marines and now in the Alameda County Fire Department. We in Emeryville very much appreciate all of your hard work and I was really interested to read some of the details of how you approach fighting fires. Great job, all and thanks very much for watching over us. There certainly have been some frightening, very destructive fires recently and in the past several years and we are grateful for all that you do to protect us. Thanks!

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