He’s battled blazes all through the West. He’s delivered babies and responded to all manner of medical emergencies. He’s even ended up on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News and in the National Enquirer. Meet San Luis Obispo’s new fire chief, Keith Aggson.
Aggson is a familiar face in firehouses around the county, having served in Atascadero, Templeton and Paso Robles before joining SLO’s fire department a couple years ago.
We caught up with Aggson between calls to talk music, movies and childhood ambitions.
Firefighter is a classic kid answer to the question of what you want to be when you grow up. Was it yours?
Not really. Riding dirt bikes and playing sports was what I was most focused on as kid. As I grew a little older, I thought I would follow my father’s path and be a building contractor. I liked to work outside and alongside my dad. Our neighbor, who was an assistant chief with the Santa Barbara County fire department, recommended I explore firefighting as an option. My senior year in high school, I attended two evening fire technology classes through Allan Hancock College, and I was hooked.
Kids (of all ages) dream of sliding down the pole, jumping on a fire truck with sirens blaring and battling blazes with huge firehoses – what’s it really like?
It is such a unique and challenging job. Nearly every run (emergency incident) is different, and a big part of our service is getting there as quickly as possible in a big red giant tool box. Fighting fire is an amazingly daunting task, not to mention all of the other technical skills our firefighters must be proficient in. Our men and women do an amazing and difficult job. I couldn’t imagine doing anything different, it is a great career.
What’s the most unusual call or situation you’ve been involved with?
Well, my crew and I made it into the National Enquirer back in the early ‘90s after responding to a woman with severe back spasms. Very quickly into the incident, we realized she was having labor contractions; however, she and her husband insisted she was not pregnant. The initial call for lower back spasms resulted in a healthy baby boy delivery about 20 minutes later at the hospital. Some months later the story ran in National Enquirer, and sure enough, there we were in print.
What’s your favorite show or movie about firefighters?
Ugh … most are pretty cheesy, I will admit. I liked parts of “Ladder 49” with Joaquin Phoenix. The camaraderie and relationships you build in the fire house last a lifetime, they’re your second family.
What do on-screen depictions get wrong about the job?
Cars don’t always explode when they’re on fire, the smoke in building fires is acrid, blinding and choking, and not every call results in a dramatic rescue. Don’t get me wrong, it makes for good entertainment though.
How do you blow off steam, or relax after a long day?
The first 5 minutes after I get home each night, I kiss my wife and throw the ball for our dog, Bailey. It makes her so happy and makes us laugh.
How did your family ended up on the Central Coast?
My grandfather on my father’s side, was born in Dodge City, Kansas. At the start of World War II, he enlisted in the Navy, which brought him to the West Coast. He did some of his training near Morro Bay and decided California’s Central Coast was for him. Once the war was over, he moved the family out to SLO and opened Aggson’s Paint and Glass on the corner of Higuera and Broad. Some years later they sold the business, but the name remained.
What’s something about you that people are surprised to learn?
My love of music and genres I listen to. I have an amazingly wide range of music CDs, iTunes songs etc., and really enjoy attending concerts from Metallica to Jimmy Buffett and everything in between.
With several devastating wildfires in recent years around the state, how well prepared do you think the city of SLO and its residents are?
As a young firefighter in 1990 responding to the Painted Cave Fire in Santa Barbara — 5,000 acres with nearly 400 homes destroyed — I recall the fire captains telling us this would be the biggest fire of our careers, that we would most likely never see this level of devastation from wildfire.
What we have experienced in the last five years is unprecedented and incredibly troubling, with most of the biggest fires in history recorded. The fires of late, secondary to the past drought and climate changes, have made it clear that no community is immune from wildfire and that preparedness is everyone’s responsibility.
Generally, awareness is up and citizen concern regarding our local conditions has compelled positive action towards addressing wildfire threat. One of our Major City Goals is Disaster Preparedness, which includes major fires. Related to wildfire, the best defense is a strong offense in preparing well in advance. The city has adopted the Ready-Set-Go program and presented it twice last year to community members. In addition, the Fire Department will be hosting several Ready-Set-Go and Disaster Preparedness forums throughout the community later this year.
The “Ready” is creating and maintaining defensible space through fuel (vegetation/landscaping) removal and hardening your home against flying embers. The “Set” is preparing your household members and home ahead of time for the possibility of having to evacuate. And “Go” is acting to go early in evacuating. The best chance of your household members and home surviving a wildfire is taking these actions now.
I am truly honored and humbled to serve the community of San Luis Obispo and appreciate all the support and encouragement the last six months as the interim and now fire chief. I am excited about the work ahead, my role, responsibilities and accomplishments we, together as a fire department and community, will achieve.