UNDER FIRE : Monterey Park Chief Is Unrattled by Reprimand
On a return flight from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles on Wednesday, James O. Page’s seatmate asked him what he did for a living.
“I could have said I’m a lawyer, a publisher or a number of other things,” Page said in an interview Thursday. “But I said I’m a fire chief.”
Page is Monterey Park’s fire chief under fire.
This man, who has the looks and personality of the television detective Kojak, faces one of his career’s biggest challenges: managing the political controversy surrounding the disclosure of a series of internal Fire Department memos.
The memos included unfavorable comments about local political leaders and criticized those who opposed a proposed takeover of the city’s fire safety operations by the county Fire Department.
As Page was flying back from addressing the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs convention last week, the news was becoming public that City Manager Mark Lewis had admonished Page for the periodic bulletins, called Countdown.
The memos had been distributed since spring within the 53-member department. As the memo editor, Page oversaw the three members of the Monterey Park Firefighters Assn. who wrote them.
“I’ve probably only had three or four bosses in 30 years who weren’t afraid of me,” Page said. “I think Lewis is one of them. And I love it. I like guys who aren’t afraid of me. I not only tend to frighten bosses, but I tend to frighten elected officials.”
Why would anyone fear Page?
“I’m big, ugly, bald, loud and verbose,” he said. Page is 6-foot-3, weighs 185 pounds and runs three to six miles daily.
“On fires and hazardous-materials emergencies and building collapses, I expect (my people) to operate with the skill and the meanness of the L.A. Raiders,” Page said. “But when they’re helping a 90-year-old widow that’s having difficulty breathing, I expect them to offer the kind of quiet comfort and attention that a group of Franciscan monks might.”
James Owen Page is a hometown boy who has made good. He is an entrepreneur, has served as consultant for a television series, and tours the world as a lecturer on fire protection and emergency services.
He has worked in the Republican administration of a North Carolina governor, and this year Gov. George Dukemejian appointed him to California’s Emergency Medical Services Commission. Bryant Gumbel has interviewed Page about cardiopulmonary resuscitation on NBC’s “Today” show. Harry Reasoner interviewed him recently as part of a segment planned for CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Page is also chairman of the board of a publishing company that last year recorded $3 million in sales. He is a prolific writer on the subject of fire and rescue services.
But, he says, first and foremost he is a fire chief.
It was his role as “fire chief as author” that got Page into trouble with the city manager. Because of his publishing interests, he is known around the fire stations as “The Editor.” In encouraging his firefighters to improve their writing skills and keep themselves informed about the possible county takeover of the city Fire Department, Page approved the publishing of the memos.
The problem wasn’t that Page used memos to communicate within the Fire Department, Lewis said, but that their content was inappropriate.
One memo called former City Councilman Cam Briglio “a master of misinformation.” Another referred to the “plantation owner mentality” of part of the community’s power structure. A third memo spoke of the “bizarre environment that seems to be the driving force of Monterey Park politics.”
Although Page has said he will no longer edit or distribute the memos, he has defended their publication by saying they were not intended for public consumption.
Instead, Page said, the memos were meant to counter rumors and provide accurate, up-to-date information about the city’s investigation of whether a county takeover of the Monterey Park Fire Department would be a good idea.
The takeover is backed by Page, who once served as a battalion chief in the county Fire Department, and by the firefighters union as a way for the city to save money and improve its fire and emergency services. The firefighters also have made it no secret that the takeover would help them more easily advance their careers because they would be part of a larger, more diverse organization.
Page views the controversy as a bittersweet one.
“The people referred to in those bulletins didn’t enjoy being referred to in a negative light in public. I don’t either. The sweet part is that my hometown, Monterey Park, is on the verge of a new era because we’ve got a very special boss now. He’s the best thing to happen to this city in a long time.”
Lewis started his job two weeks ago after leaving the post of city manager for South San Francisco. After one week on the job, he reprimanded Page for the memos, which had astonished some members of the City Council and the community.
“I work for the city manager,” Page said. “He has told me what he expects, and the key to my survival is making him happy. . . . We have a city manager who is clearly in charge and here to stay. . . . I want (Lewis) to succeed, and he wants me to succeed. He doesn’t have to defend me against this council.”
Three years ago, Page returned to Monterey Park to become chief in the town where he grew up on South Chandler Avenue and where he started his career as a firefighter in 1957.
Page’s mother ran the Community Chest charity and was PTA president at Ynez Elementary School, where he was a student. Page graduated from Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra and went to East Los Angeles College, where he attended night school but did not receive a degree.
After two years as a Monterey Park firefighter, Page joined the county Fire Department and eventually became a battalion chief.
That was when he suffered the most serious injury of his career. “I have a really ugly gash down my arm from shoulder to elbow, where I was practically cut in half by a (piece of) plate glass falling in a high-rise fire in Hollywood.”
In 1965, Page, who never obtained an undergraduate degree, took equivalency exams and was admitted to Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, hoping that a law degree might help him become a city manager. He graduated in 1970 and passed the California Bar exam the following year.
But after briefly practicing law in Covina, Page concluded that he didn’t want to be either a lawyer or a city manager.
In the early 1970s, he met producer-actor Jack Webb and another producer, Bob Cinader, who enlisted him as a consultant and writer for the “Emergency” television series.
Staged Fire Scene
A color photograph on his office wall shows firefighters battling a blaze atop a 5-story building. Page helped orchestrate the scene, staged on the Universal Studios back lot.
Page left the county Fire Department in 1973 to oversee North Carolina’s office of emergency medical services. After 15 months, he left for Buffalo, N.Y., to direct a federally funded emergency services project. By 1976, he was executive director of a New Jersey foundation whose goal was to spread the gospel of cardiopulmonary resuscitation as a technique to save lives.
He returned to California in 1983 when the foundation moved to Solano Beach in San Diego County. But that same year he quit to devote more time to the publishing company he had founded in 1979.
JEMS Publishing aims its books, videotapes, seminars and three trade magazines at readers in the fire-protection, emergency-services and rescue fields. It also advertises on cable television, using actress Michael Learned--who played the mother on “The Waltons” television show--to promote a $39.95 first-aid videotape for families.
Page started the company with $100,000. He says its sales have grown from $134,000 in 1980 to $3 million last year.
Meanwhile, in August, 1984, he became a fire battalion chief in Carlsbad, where he still lives with his wife. They have raised four children. Page also maintains an apartment near the Monterey Park City Hall and fire headquarters.
When he came to Monterey Park as chief in 1986, Page said, he relinquished many of his publishing duties. But he still retains the title of chairman of the board and writes a monthly column for the most substantial of the three magazines, the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, which has a national paid circulation of 35,000.
He also participates in seminars offered by his company on topics such as maintenance of emergency vehicles. He has written four textbooks and a fifth book, “The Magic of 3 a.m. Essays on the Art and Science of Emergency Medical Services,” which is sometimes offered as a renewal bonus to subscribers of his magazines.
Page’s writing and speaking style reflects a philosophy and approach that have won him the devotion of many members of the Monterey Park Firefighters Assn. The union, on hearing of his political troubles, voted unanimously in support of the chief at a meeting attended by 33 of its 46 members.
‘Honest and Open’
“I don’t think (Page) has any shortcomings,” said fire Capt. Paul McCrummen, vice president of the association and one of the memo authors. “But if being honest and open can be considered a fault, then he was too honest and too open with his policies, and it jumped back and bit him.”
The chief said: “Both in the Fire Department and in my business, my philosophy is that I must enlist, inspire and empower my people and then get the hell out of the way.”
Page’s candor poses no problem for him. “It’s a problem for other people,” he said. “It makes other people uncomfortable. It’s unfortunate. . . .
“I know at 52 years old I’m not going to change. I know I can live and work in extremely intense circumstances and sleep well at night and suffer no loss of appetite. I’ve got a formula that works well for me.”