Fountain Valley Fire Chief Ron Cookston recalls being dispatched early in his career to Fountain Bowl, where a woman in her 40s had gone into cardiac arrest.
After arriving, Cookston helped provide life-saving measures and, by the time the ambulance arrived at the emergency department, she had regained consciousness.
“It was the first time that epitomized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Cookston said.
Cookston took the helm of the Fountain Valley Fire Department earlier this month following the retirement of former chief Tony Coppolino, who stepped down June 28 after leading the department for six years.
Cookston was born in Hollywood in 1968 and spent part of his childhood in San Gabriel before his family moved to Fountain Valley in 1979.
After graduating from Fountain Valley High School, he left home at age 18 and worked 60-hour weeks as a heavy machine operator and diesel mechanic.
He did that for a couple of years until he had a fateful lunch with his cousin.
“I was talking about my job and that I loved it but, for what I wanted, I saw how it would limit me,” Cookston said.
His cousin recommended that he join him in the fire service and Cookston subsequently enrolled in the fire academy at Santa Ana College. After completing the cadet program, he was hired as a reserve firefighter in Santa Ana.
Cookston said he at one point had job offers from five fire agencies, but ultimately landed on serving what he considers to be his hometown. He started working at the Fountain Valley Fire Department as a fire prevention and suppression reserve in 1991 and has stayed with the agency since.
“The reason I chose Fountain Valley was the atmosphere and the importance they place on their employees,” he said. “Even though it’s small, it’s one of the busiest paramedic units in Orange County.”
Since starting his firefighting career, Cookston, who now lives in Trabuco Canyon, has held every sworn position in the department — including paramedic, engineer, captain, paramedic coordinator, training captain and battalion chief.
During Coppolino’s tenure, the city faced daunting fiscal challenges after losing tax revenue during the Great Recession. The Fire Department faced the prospect of having to close one of its stations because of its constrained budget.
In 2016, Fountain Valley voters approved Measure HH, a 1% sales tax increase that brought an additional $11.8 million into the city’s coffers for essential services during fiscal year 2017-18.
This funding allowed Fountain Valley fire officials to maintain 911 emergency response times, keep Station No. 2 open, restore one battalion chief position, replace aging vehicles and improve station security.
“We had a critical management challenge through the economic downturn,” Cookston said. “We were one chief officer short. Through that initiative, we were able to restore that position, which is critical to the programs and personnel support of the fire department.”
Mayor Steve Nagel said he was a Fountain Valley fire captain when Cookston started with the department back in the early 1990s.
“Ron always brought a lot of energy to the department and was always willing to jump in and do whatever is asked,” Nagel said. “I don’t see that changing in his new position.”
One of Cookston’s priorities as the new fire chief is public education. He wants department employees to improve outreach through fire station tours for children, continued presence on social media platforms including Instagram and blood pressure clinics for elderly residents.
“There’s just no greater honor for me as a Fountain Valley firefighter than to give back to this city and this department for the opportunities they gave me,” Cookston said.
Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.