Willis To Remain As Big Bear Fire Chief

Big Bear Fire Chief Jeff Willis will remain in his assignment heading San Bernardino County’s 13th largest fire department, likely until the expiration of his contract on June 30, 2025, despite the widespread expression of dissatisfaction with his leadership by those he commands.
Last spring, the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association approached then-Big Bear Community Services District Board of Directors Chairman John Green with a request that he agendize a board meeting in which Willis’s performance would be a topic for open discussion. When Green turned that request down, the association responded with a vote of no confidence against Willis in June, making a report to that effect by letter to the full board.
In that letter, the association said it had accumulated “examples of fiscal irresponsibility and conduct unbecoming of a fire chief” relating to Willis. While crediting Willis with having “successfully navigated a difficult merger” between what had been at that time the separate Big Bear City Fire Department and the Big Bear Lake Fire Protection District in 2012, the association charged that Willis had engaged in “political posturing, leveraging, and extreme operational neglect… over the past eight years.” Willis, according to the firefighters, had “repeatedly misrepresented the labor force’s wishes and has degraded our reputation to the board to fulfill his own contractual negotiations. Since the merger in 2012, we have not replaced a piece of firefighting apparatus. The Big Bear Fire Department does not have a working budget for apparatus replacement. Chief Willis prioritizes a bloated administration while running a budget deficit without regard to public safety. Our budget shortfalls are the clearest example of incompetent leadership.”In addition, according to the firefighters, “Chief Willis has consistently failed on his planned operational directives. Additionally, we still have two-person engines, an unsustainable staffing model and we are ignored on basic labor needs. Most egregiously, he repeatedly prioritizes administration and political issues over our ability to protect the community.”
The association had lambasted Willis with similar accusations in 2020. The union discontent did not register at that time with enough force to cause any ripple in the organization.
Despite the mostly rural and relatively sparsely populated nature of the Big Bear community in the San Bernardino Mountains, the arrangement for the political leadership of the organization that oversees the fire department is a somewhat complex and bifurcated one, which makes applying control in the Big Bear Fire Authority somewhat more challenging than it is in most other jurisdictions.
The 38.45-square mile Big Bear community is home to 17,784 residents. There is some confusion, however about jurisdictional lines and issues in Big Bear, as it consists of two entities, the City of Big Bear Lake and Big Bear City. Despite its name, Big Bear City is not a municipality but rather an unincorporated county area and a designated census place. Big Bear Lake is an incorporated municipality. Even though it has status as an actual city, Big Bear Lake is smaller than Big Bear City both in terms of land area and population. The former is 6.42 square miles and has 5,046 inhabitants. The latter is an expansive 32.03 square miles with 12,738 residents. While both qualify as rustic mountain districts, the more compact Big Bear Lake is slightly more urbanized and densely populated. The Big Bear City Community Services District is chartered to oversee the delivery of public services to the county area – specifically water and sewer utilities, trash pick-up and fire protection.
The Big Bear City Community Services District board members are directors on the Big Bear Fire Authority Board along with all five Big Bear Lake City Council members. The Big Bear Fire Authority Board members are the Big Bear fire chief’s political masters. The fire chief oversees the Big Bear Fire Department.
This summer, barely two months after he had spurned the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association in its request to undertake a discussion of Willis’s performance as fire chief, Big Bear City Community Services District Board Chairman Green died. That development did not lessen the firefighters’ resolve to force the issue with regard to their beef with Willis. They pressed on.
Willis, despite being at odds with the men he commands, is, in his own right, something of a Big Bear community institution.
Willis began working with the Big Bear City Fire Department as a very young man in 1984. In January 2008, he became the youngest fire chief in that department’s history. At that time, there were no fewer than five separate fire agencies in the Big Bear community and its environs. In July 2011, the Big Bear City Community Services District Board and the Big Bear City Council acquiesced in having Willis take on the assignment of fire chief with the Big Bear Lake Fire Department, even while he was yet heading the Big Bear City Fire Department. Thereafter, Willis divided his time between Station 281 in Big Bear Lake and Station 282 in Big Bear City, Station 283 in Sugar Loaf and Station 284 in Big Bear City, with occasional sojourns to the paid call stations in Boulder Bay and Moonridge.
In 2012, the Big Bear Lake City Council and the Big Bear City Community Services District Board of Directors committed to the merger of the Big Bear Lake Fire Department and the Big Bear City Fire Department under an arrangement that included the creation of the Big Bear Fire Authority and its governing board.
Despite difficulties, Willis navigated that merger with aplomb, which is widely recognized by mountain residents, the community services district leadership, the politicians and city staff in Big Bear Lake, professional firefighters with other local and county agencies and the firefighters employed by what is now referred to as the Big Bear Fire Department.
According to the department’s rank and file, that is about the last time Willis made a show of competence, and the lion’s share of the department’s crews want him gone. To the decision-makers overseeing the fire department, however, the fiscal bottom line that attains in running a public organization looms large, and they recognize that there is a finite amount of financial resources available to cover the cost of operations, which includes paying the salaries of firefighters, who in California average $57,433 in base pay/starting salary with an average of $27,737 in overtime for a total of $85,170 before benefits and deferred compensation, well above the average pay before benefits of $73,220 paid to typical private sector neophyte employees. In this way, the board of directors of the Big Bear Fire Authority, consisting of the Big Bear Lake City Council and the Big Bear City Community Services District’s directors, in 2020 and again this year, had much more in mind than the Big Bear Fire Department’s employees when it came to the most logical and prudent management of the department.
The fire authority’s directors are acutely aware that they have themselves imposed on Willis certain economies and requirements, which in being applied have antagonized or irritated the rank and file. From the perspective of the board members, the desires and demands of the firefighters for equipment and material acquisitions and updates can most logically be met by reducing personnel costs, which means curtailing or delaying salary increases, which would prove even more unacceptable to the firefighters than the status quo.
Willis, the board recognizes, has been damned for not complying with the association’s demands and will be equally or more damned if he does. It was for that reason, primarily, that the union’s complaint went unheeded three years ago and why Green was unwilling to convene a forum earlier this year in which Willis was to be raked over the coals for living within the budgetary means imposed on him.
To the extent that policies Willis is enforcing are out of sync with what practices or best practices some of the department’s younger firefighters are propounding to be the norm with other departments, the board members are willing to entertain examining options, though the board as a whole is ready to default to trusting Willis, who now has more than 15 years experience in running a fire department, particularly in terms of making do with what is available on hand to ensure the safety of the community.
One issue for the rank and file is Willis’s insistence on two-man fire crews, whereas the firefighters consider that to be an anachronism that is dangerous and inadequate. Moving to three-man or four-man crews, however, would entail operating costs in terms of personnel that would either leave the department in the red or require the reduction in equipment acquisition that would further exacerbate other situations the firefighters have complained about.
As of September 1, the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association gave the fire authority an ultimatum: either Willis was removed as chief or they would walk out.
As it would turn out, the union did not get what it was demanding.
On September 6, the fire authority met in an executive session outside the scrutiny of the public at which the circumstance between the fire chief and the firefighters was the primary topic. A subcommittee was formed, which is to make an examination of the issues that concern the firefighters.
Thereafter, however, the fire authority, essentially, called the association’s bluff relating to walking off the job, offering a statement on September 11 that neither Willis nor any other department employee could be “terminated without due process.”
The fire authority did agree, however, to incorporate into Willis’s ongoing performance review further specific “direction or redirection” his management of the department should take.
One concession was made to the firefighters union. On September 18, the Big Bear Community Services District Board of Directors voted 2-to-1 to appoint Mike Eagleson to fill the gap within its ranks created with the death of former Director Green. Eagleson, was endorsed for the board appointment by the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association, as he is a former firefighter himself, having worked for the Foothill Fire District and Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department. Eagleson was also a public safety employee union representative, having served as the executive director with the San Bernardino County Safety Employees Benefit Association, the union for sheriff’s deputies and other county law enforcement officers.
The board ultimately made a public statement saying its members both understood and shared the firefighters’ concerns relating to “strained relationships among employees.” Simultaneously, the board alluded to “the challenging financial realities faced by the fire authority. It is the board’s responsibility to ensure all fire authority employees from fire chief to firefighter are afforded every reasonable opportunity to perform successfully in their roles.”
In a rare identification of the specifics dealt with in a closed session, as personnel matters are considered under California’s open public meeting law, the Brown Act, to be confidential, the fire authority board publicly disclosed that throughout the remainder of the 2023-24 governmental cycle, Willis has been instructed to improve the fire department financial prospects, improve his relationship with the department’s firefighters and his means of communication and adhering to department goals, as well as improve the department’s commitment to community safety and maintaining the public’s faith in the department.
The fire authority board committed to monitoring the situation closely going forward. Unchanged was Willis’s status as the Big Bear fire chief.
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply