DOWNTOWN — Ray Krakowski on Monday became the seventh chief of the Burbank Fire Department, nine months after being named to the interim post.
Krakowski joined the department in 1980 and rose through the ranks from firefighter/paramedic to captain, battalion chief and assistant fire chief.
“There was never a feeling that I had to get the job at all costs,” Krakowski said. “It was really me saying ‘If you don’t like what you see, no hard feelings. I am happy. But if you do like what you see, let me know because I am going to make a hard charge at this.’”
The 51-year-old had been serving as acting chief since June, when former Chief Tracy Pansini went out on medical leave. Pansini retired last month.
“It’s not that we’ve made a tremendous decision or very difficult decision or looked all over the Earth to find the right person,” said City Manager Mike Flad, presiding over the change-of-command ceremony Monday at Burbank Fire Department Headquarters. “We are just so thankful that Chief Krakowski — and I really like the way that sounds — has stepped up and has made the decision and the sacrifice to serve the citizens of Burbank.”
Finances would likely dominate much of his attention in the first few months, Krakowski said.
“Everybody is looking for heroes out there. But it’s really just about standing up, doing the right thing, and that doesn’t have to be in a uniform,” he said. “It can be in a suit. It can be in a pair of jeans. There’s a lot of people in this economy who are really showing their strengths.”
The ceremony, replete with the pomp and circumstance derived from centuries-old military traditions, featured the department’s official flag alongside Old Glory. Tricia Krakowski, with their three college-aged children looking on from the front row, knelt down to pin the chief’s badge on her husband of more than two decades.
“We want to first of all thank you for allowing your husband to do this,” said Fire Capt. Lew Stone, president of Burbank Firefighters Local 778. “As exciting as this is, the investment you make is nothing compared to the investment in your family.”
The incoming chief will be paid a salary between $157,471 and $191,328 to oversee the 139-member department, Flad said.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said it’s helpful when someone can be elevated to chief from within the department, given their familiarity with the city, its character and challenges.
“Every city I think enjoys a special relationship with the men and women of the fire department. But in Burbank, I think that relationship is even closer than in many towns,” he said. “Maybe it’s the proximity of the foothills and the near constant risk we face from wildfires very close to where we all live and work. But that is a tremendous bond, and it was hard earned by this department over decades of excellence.”
Born in Omaha, Neb., and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Krakowski said he weighed several options before deciding on a career in firefighting. His hobbies include piloting airplanes, flying radio-controlled planes and helicopters, and playing the banjo.
“You don’t hear someone playing a depressing old song on the banjo,” he said. “It’s a happy instrument, and that’s what kind of drew me to playing it.”
Krakowski, who in a job interview roughly 30 years ago told a former chief that he aspired to hold the post, said he didn’t hesitate when Flad tapped him to lead the department on an interim basis.
“I thought, ‘Piece of cake. How tough could that be to step up and fill the spot for a while?’” he said.
Just one month into the job, however, he learned that while there may be an acting-chief title, there would be no interim decisions, policies or procedures — those were permanent, he said.
Among the chief’s immediate challenges was weighing more than $1 million in budget cuts while trying to maintain response times and service levels.
Department executives have been instructed to cut another 5% from their budgets for fiscal year 2010-11.
Assistant Chief Tom Lenahan said he couldn’t imagine a more qualified candidate with a proven record of meeting adversity head on.
“We are pleased and proud to have him lead us through some challenging and exciting times, and we fully expect him to elevate this great organization to new levels of excellence,” he said.