Newport Beach Fire Chief Chip Duncan is retiring this month after 32 years of blazes, medical calls and customer service.
Duncan, a San Diego-area native who adopted Newport after seeing a job posting in the San Diego Union-Tribune classifieds, has no plans for his free time other than chores around the house and spending time with his newborn twin grandsons. His last shift is July 20, the day of the grand opening for the newly rebuilt Corona del Mar fire station.
A partially melted helmet hangs from a wall of departmental mementos in another station, the one on Balboa Island. That’s Duncan’s helmet, warped after a training exercise. A candy-apple red 1920 American LaFrance firetruck — fully restored to look like Newport’s trucks of that era, down to the wooden spokes and chain drives — gleams a few feet away. That’s from well before Duncan’s time, but he identifies with it, sitting in it this week while looking back, “an old guy with an old truck.”
He’s only 54, but with more than three decades on the front lines and in administration, he’s seen firefighting change and stay the same.
Duncan, whose given name is Charles Duncan III, didn’t know what he wanted to do as a young man, although it should have been clear early on — his father, Charles Jr., served with the El Cajon Fire Department, and the younger Duncan tagged along as a child.
After high school he worked construction and attended junior college but wasn’t inspired. He thought about joining the Marine Corps, but the sergeant he needed to talk to was out of the office the day he went in.
So his father persuaded him to try emergency medical technician training.
It clicked. Duncan signed up as an unpaid reservist in the state forestry department’s fire service, then became a paid seasonal firefighter with Cal Fire. He had about two years of firefighting experience in 1987, when the Newport job came up.
“My girlfriend and I loaded up our 1983 Ford Escort and drove up here,” he said.
Duncans do fire service well: In addition to his dad, who retired as a captain, his brother Scott reached battalion chief in Vista and his son Charles IV (Chad), 29, is a firefighter with Newport Beach, currently assigned to the Mariners station on Irvine Avenue. He also has a daughter Hillary, 27, with his wife, Katie, the girlfriend who rode along with him in the Ford.
Duncan climbed the ranks in the Newport Fire Department and was promoted to chief in 2017, the first time the department had a leader from within in 31 years.
Assistant Chief Jeff Boyles is now set to take the top spot to lead 114 firefighters and 13 year-round lifeguards.
Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill praised both.
“Our city manager [Grace Leung] hit the jackpot joining a city whose Fire Department was led by Chief Chip Duncan and Assistant Chief Jeff Boyles,” O’Neill said. “Her decision to promote Jeff is brilliant. Jeff’s dedication to our city and department are always on display, and he will ably lead our Fire Department.”
What won’t change
Duncan describes fire departments as “pocket knives” with their multidisciplinary firefighting, emergency medical care and forensic investigation capabilities.
Police and fire departments work together more smoothly now since contemporary terrorism and mass shootings have changed the first-responder landscape. Modern possessions have made for more noxious fuels as electronics and plastics dominate, and a deeper understanding of fire and smoke behavior has changed extinguishing strategy, although the brute physical labor of attacking fires hasn’t changed.
Still, the more scientific understanding of fire science has shifted firefighting from a vocation to a profession. Duncan expects to see more changes through his son.
Newport residents support public safety and expect top customer service, Duncan said. That means letting the dog out, sprinkling fish food in the aquarium and grabbing medications from the cabinet as a patient is taken to a hospital.
“[In] Newport Beach, that’s the level of service we provide,” he said.