Standing the Heat

Michael Urquides retired from Monterey County Regional Fire District, which has a service area of about 400 square miles with a population of about 40,000. The district has 62 full-time employees, 15 volunteer firefighters and six fire stations.

Not everyone can find a passion at a young age. But Michael Urquides, longtime fire chief at Monterey County Regional Fire District, discovered it during his senior year of high school when he took a firefighter class from the Regional Occupation Program (ROP).

But perhaps his interest piqued several years before, when firefighters saved his family’s Christmas in 1978. Urquides was 11 years old that December when flames ignited at his home. “I always thought that was unique, that 10 years after that I would be a firefighter for that same department that responded to the house,” he says.

Urquides started as a volunteer firefighter and climbed positions until becoming chief. He grew up in Monterey County and attended different schools including in Pacific Grove, Carmel and Salinas. Getting to know the area, he says, helped him understand the needs of the residents he served throughout his career. He retired on Dec. 30.

He shared some insights and reflections with the Weekly.

Weekly: What are the biggest challenges ahead for fire districts in Monterey County?

Urquides: We only serve the area outside of cities. As cities grow, they have new revenue – but we don’t have a lot of new housing outside the cities. That hurts our revenue stream, and it’s hard for us to compete for employees.

There has to be more of a comprehensive look at fire protection from a regional standpoint, that incorporates better financing for the sustainability of fire districts.

Do you think there’s an alternative to fund or provide better first responder services?

The alternative is having a County Fire Department, with one financing package, versus keeping more money in the one area over others.

What are you most proud of?

The paramedic program that I was able to help start in 2006 was probably the most significant thing. We started with three paramedics and now we’re at 35.

You worked as a firefighter for over 30 years. What changed in that time?

We used to burn old homes for training. We can’t do that now because of air pollution control, asbestos – things like that. [With] the advancement of technology, our equipment is faster, it’s nicer. People call 911. We get the calls much faster [and] people can give us more accurate information.

You don’t like it, you don’t hate it. You just respect it. Because it comes in all forms.

Do you like fire as an element?

You don’t like it, you don’t hate it. You just respect it. Because it comes in all forms.

Firefighters sometimes work in dangerous situations. Are there any that stand out for you?

Any calls with live power lines. I was actually electrocuted on a structure fire when I tried to shut the power off. They had done an illegal wiring job. And when I reached in, it was dark. I got shocked significantly.

Did you ever think about changing careers?

No, no, no. It was in my heart. I enjoyed it. I looked forward to going to work every day and had no desire to do anything else until I was eligible for retirement.

When you were a kid, did you play with fire trucks?

I think so, like all kids. That was exciting. I used to enjoy when the firefighters would come to our school and do the drills. So like any child, firefighting was exciting. Once I took the training in high school, I was hooked.

What do you think you’re going to miss the most?

My coworkers and the ability to affect change. You go from the fire chief to a resident. When people call you it’s like, “I’m not the chief anymore. You have to call someone else.” But that’s what happens in life. You move forward and I’ll still live in the area that I served, so I’m very lucky.

What is the most unusual thing you’ve experienced at a fire station?

When I was a captain at our Laureles station on Highway 68, we had two Raiders cheerleaders who stopped by. They were in their full outfits, trying to find an event at Laguna Seca and they were lost.

Have you saved a cat stuck in a tree?

Yes, we have one every few years. Even though people say, “They don’t go out,” we tend to go out and try to see if we can help.

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