Firehouse® Interview: Las Vegas Fire Chief Mario H. Treviño

Mario H. Treviño has been the chief of Las Vegas Fire & Rescue since 1996. He has 28 years of experience in the fire service, having previously served with the Seattle Fire Department, where he rose through the ranks to the level of deputy fire chief. Treviño graduated summa cum laude from Seattle University with a bachelor's degree in public administration. In 1998, he was awarded a Harvard University Fellowship for Senior Public Officials.

Photo Courtesy of Las Vegas Fire & Rescue
Las Vegas Fire Chief, Mario H. Treviño

Treviño is an executive board member of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs; a member of the Terrorism, Professional Development and ISO committees of the International Association of Fire Chiefs; an advisory board member of the Fire and Emergency Television Network; and was invited to participate in the National Fire Protection Association's Urban Fire Forum in 2000. He has testified before United States congressional committees on two separate occasions, has had numerous articles published in trade journals and magazines, and is also the chairman of the Fire Service Committee of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

Treviño is very active in local community concerns, such as board memberships in the American Red Cross, Nevada Community College and local chambers of commerce. He was interviewed by Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner.

Firehouse: Your population is continuing to grow here?

Treviño: Yes, and I'm sure you've probably read that Las Vegas was the largest-growing metropolitan area during the '90s, and we haven't seen any slowdown in the growth rate. The Las Vegas valley is still growing by between 4,000 and 6,000 people net per month.

Firehouse: Most people consider the whole area to be Las Vegas, but please describe your specific response area.

Treviño: Actually, we're the fire department for the City of Las Vegas and then, as you know, there are other cities - the City of Henderson, which is officially the second-largest city in the state, by the way, it just surpassed Reno. There's Boulder City. There's North Las Vegas, which is in the neighborhood of 100,000 people. Then there are the unincorporated parts of Clark County, and they have their own fire department, but we do automatic aid, so we're in Clark County every day and they're in the city every day.

Firehouse: Is there a percentage of the area that still hasn't been developed? I mean, is it 10%, 20%, 30% of your area? Is there any idea how much is left?

Treviño: No. Actually, the city is still expanding. At almost every City Council session there's an annexation item on the agenda. So not only are we growing in population, we're also growing in square mileage, and I don't know at what point that ends.

Now, there is a valley, and if you fly over it, you can see that we're ringed by mountains all the way around. I imagine until the growth fills that entire valley up, we're going to keep growing and I haven't seen an end in sight.

Firehouse: What are your expansion plans? You have several stations on the drawing board?

Treviño: That's correct. We just opened a new station last November, and we are breaking ground on four more this year.

We went to the voters last year with Fire Initiative 2000, and they approved it. The initiative will pay for four of our new stations, 96 firefighters and paramedics, 17 staff positions and an apparatus-replacement program for the next 30 years. Each of our engines will automatically be replaced after seven years of service and each ladder truck after 10 years.

Needless to say, we are very pleased by the vote of confidence by the citizens of Las Vegas, and it will make our efforts to keep up with growth much easier financially.

Firehouse: So you've investigated different ways to do it?

Treviño: Right. We have different strategies. There's still quite a bit of land here that's controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and we work with them pretty extensively. We have another seven to 10 sites identified through BLM that they're going to give us for fire stations, for a new training center, for those kinds of things. And then, as I said, if we—if we're able to get property from developers, we'll do that.

Pretty much the last priority is when we have to purchase property from the city general fund, and we do that as well. In fact, we bought two station sites within six months, so we're exploring every angle.

Firehouse: Do you figure you'll double in size in 10 years, or sooner or longer?

Treviño: As far as the fire department goes, I think we'll double within five to seven years.

Firehouse: What would be the manpower requirements in that time? Do you have any number, like another 100 members, 200, 300?

Treviño: You know, I couldn't tell you. That would take some pencil-and-paper.

Firehouse: The automatic aid works well with both Clark County and Las Vegas. You have a new communications center here, so you dispatch for those departments also?

Treviño: That's right.

Firehouse: Do the departments have a single academy?

Treviño: No. In the past, we've done cooperative training processes. But as it stands now, we have a fully staffed training center and we do our own training now.

Now, that doesn't mean that we don't train with the other jurisdictions. As far as in-service training goes, it's important to train with the other jurisdictions that you're going to be responding with. But as far as the academies, we have our own. Clark County has their own. And Henderson just built a training center about two years ago. And I don't know if you'd had a look at that, but that's really a nice facility. And so they're doing there own training now as well.

We'll train North Las Vegas or Boulder City firefighters through our academy occasionally, and occasionally they will train in Clark County, so there's a little bit of that cooperation still going on.

Firehouse: How do you keep up with permits and inspections and things like that?

Treviño: Well, that's actually a great question. That's something people don't recognize typically. When they think of growth, they think of how are we going to fight the fire in these places?

But the workload in our fire prevention division has increased, I think, 400% over the past 10 years and yet the staff has not. We have not been able to add staff as we'd like to.

What that means is that the fire prevention folks have to come up with really innovative ways to keep on top of things and so far that is still working for us, but frankly, we're at a point where we really need additional staff and we're making that case with the budget folks.

Firehouse: You said when you had moved to where your house is, there was an area where there were no buildings or anything, and now it's a totally built-up neighborhood.

Treviño: That's right. It's almost solid. There are a few open lots still, but it's almost completely filled with businesses - and I mean there's everything from restaurants to gas stations to supermarkets to health clubs, you name it.

And that's one of the things that's characteristic of Las Vegas, the Las Vegas that people don't know. When people come to visit Las Vegas, they know the hotels and they know the casinos, but they don't get out in the neighborhoods much, unless they know someone who lives there. And when they get out to the neighborhoods, what they find is that we're a very spread-out community. We're not centralized really at all, which is atypical when you compare us to another city like San Francisco or Seattle or New York, cities like that. We're very spread out.

So your community services, whether they're grocery stores or, as I said, health clubs, anything, tend to be in the area there. So you don't normally drive downtown to the Strip for entertainment or those kinds of things if you live here. Now, of course, if you live here what you find is that people come to visit, then they want to visit the casinos and so that's when you visit.

Firehouse: How about the water supply? Everybody talks about the area as a desert. It is a desert, and water rights are an issue. I know from being out in the new Station 7 that all of a sudden all these thousands of homes are popping up. Is the water supply adequate? Do you anticipate any other problems or are they going to utilize more water from the Colorado River for Las Vegas than it had been in the past?

Treviño: You're right, water is the single critical issue to growth. And as far as additional water from Lake Mead, yes, that is actually a reality. They've added what they call a "second straw," which is a large-diameter pipeline for water supply, from Lake Mead and from what I'm told that will handle even the growth that we have for the next 10 years without any difficulty.

And beyond that arrangements and agreements have been made with the neighboring states, California and Arizona, to maintain water supply even beyond that, so there doesn't seem to be any concern about water, even though, as you said, this is a desert and without water everything stops.

The interesting thing about the area, and especially I can say this coming from an area like Seattle, I can tell you that my water bill in Las Vegas is less expensive than my water bill was in Seattle, where we were know for rain and clouds. It's an unusual situation.

Firehouse: Could you describe the department's involvement with EMS transporting and paramedics?

Treviño: We are prioritizing EMS more now than ever in the past. In fact, in January of 1999 we initiated an EMS transport system, which had never been done by the fire department in the past.

Typically, the way the system worked before was that the fire department was almost invariably the first responder. We provided EMTs, EMTIs and paramedics and we would arrive at the scene. We would extricate the patient, if necessary. We would rescue the patient. We would evaluate, stabilize and package the patient and then hand the patient off to a private ambulance for transport. And, frankly, sometimes they would be first on scene and they would cancel us if we weren't needed.

The change has been with us doing a percentage of the transports. We made arrangements and agreements with the ambulance provider that in certain kinds of calls we don't dispatch an ambulance at all. And in fact we do dispatching for the ambulance company as well from this office.

The best example I can give you is automobile accidents when working with AMR, which is currently the only provider in the Las Vegas Valley. We now respond solely to automobile accidents. And the reason for that is simple. The automobile accidents tend to be a little bit more dangerous than a standard EMS call. There's a lot of propensity for fuel spillage, for fires, for the necessity to extricate patients, as you know, with rescue tools. And that's very much a fire department function.

And the thought was if we do all those things, we need to be on the scene, we may as well just finish it up and do the transport. What that does is free up the private ambulance company to respond on the next call and that's worked very well for us.

EMS in general has just become a very high priority. We don't expect that we'll be going the other way. I think as a time goes on, we will even continue more to focus on EMS because I think like most fire departments a good 80% of what we do is EMS.

Firehouse: Are you working to do whatever you can to bring in new technology to make it easier for any of the forces?

Treviño: Yes. We're very technologically inclined and I think that the reason for that has been over the past, I would say, decade we haven't grown in numbers as much as would like to, so we have become increasingly dependent on technology, whether that's dispatch or communications technology, or whether it's efficiency and safety-type items such as the thermal imaging cameras, we rely heavily on technology. We're going to continue to do that.

We're almost constantly field testing new products, everything from apparatus to clothing to uniform items. We're incorporated the automated PASS devices. We use the thermal imagers. Our bomb squad is very well equipped. We changed over to 800 megahertz radios, which I know is not necessarily cutting edge in communications systems, but it's been a big change around here.

We have our automated vehicle-locator system pretty much up and running with the new dispatch center. And the new dispatch center will also be affording us a records management system. We're also very technology heavy in computers. We have mobile dispatch terminals and data terminals on the apparatus.

Firehouse: With major events, I was going to ask you about the golf carts and things like that. I saw your vans outside. You host many major events, so can you just explain how some of that works when you're planning for a major event with EMS and you have that type of capability, how it helps you out?

Treviño: We've been able to incorporate the bike medic program pretty well. What we find is that in large, crowded areas such as the "Fremont Street Experience" - which is a large outdoor canopy and light show over three blocks of casinos downtown - it's almost impossible to get a medic unit to the patient, so the bike medic program works well for that.

And, as you said, we do have the golf cart that was donated by the hotels that we can use to get a patient in and out of a crowded area.

It's one of those items that needs constant attention and you have to be aware of what's happening in the community - for anything from a fireworks show to a musical concert, we offer the bike medic system to just about anybody who needs it.

Firehouse: Can you describe your philosophy on rewarding personnel and recognizing them for certain events? You said a lot of people from the staff helped you out with the floods.

Treviño: We've been focusing on that quite a bit lately. As you said, during the floods last July 8, I gave a certificate of commendation to each person who came into work that day. Because the whole department did such an outstanding job, I thought that they all deserved to be recognized.

We've also just implemented an award system. When we had our fire department seasonal party at the end of the year, I gave out large trophies to the firefighter of the year, to the employee of the year, to the EMT/paramedic of the year and to two people who I recognized with what we call the Fire Chief's Award of Distinction. I think that was very well received. It's a great way to let people know that what they do on a day-to-day basis is not only important, but it's recognized by the department, by the administration. We also issue press releases to let people know that these are our stars.

I think the entire department is outstanding in terms of their commitment to the community, but it's important to recognize people when they do something extra special, and we're going to be expanding that program even more this year.

Firehouse: I understand you have access to or you're on a TV channel, or you have programs on a TV channel. Can you tell me about that?

Treviño: It's a television station that is donated by the local cable provider through a contract with the city and with the county and the other jurisdictions.

We have a television station that's dedicated just to the City of Las Vegas. It's a 24-hour-per-day television station that is sent over cable to every household in the valley. And the city runs any number of programs on it, whether they're informational items or advertisements for positions available, and pretty much whatever. The fire department has always been one of the key components of the city's communications system and we have shows that are dedicated to the fire department or that are information notices from the fire department to the community. We have really high hopes for the station.

Firehouse: I understand you're receiving new apparatus painted red instead of white. Could you explain that? Does that help with morale?

Treviño: We made the decision to change from the traditional white apparatus that we've had here to red. And the reasons - actually, I think you hit on the most important one and that is the morale of the department.

But I think even beyond that, in my experience people expect to see fire trucks that are painted red. One of the anecdotes that I can tell you is that when schoolchildren come to stations to visit and they're shown these gleaming white fire trucks, they go back to the school and they send a thank-you card. A thank-you card is usually like a crayon drawing of the fire station and invariably the fire trucks are painted red in these drawings. So even though the kids were just shown the white trucks, they really think red.

I know that may not seem like such an important concern, but to me I think the biggest task for any fire department is to increase the public perception and to give the public a sense that they're being taken care of. And I think continuity and filling the public's expectations are the paramount things in that process. If they believe are things are going well and that they're safe and they're being taken care of, then in a lot of ways they are because perception in that sense becomes reality. And so the red color is really consistent with what people not only like, but what they expect.

Firehouse: I know you're doing a lot of different things with internal wellness and you've had other people like a full-time crisis manager come in, things like that. Can you explain where you're going in that area? I know they're two different things.

Treviño: Well, as far as the CISD (critical incident stress debriefing) coordinator, we were able to get a full-time position for that this past year, which we never had in the past, and I'm very much a believer in the debriefing process.

Having been a firefighter for many years and remembering the days before debriefing was part of the fire service, I think there were a lot of emotional and mental health concerns that were attributable to the trauma that people see on a day-to-day basis.

And if you're ever debriefed, it's been demonstrated that you can reduce that stress level, that you can have a happier home life and that, in essence, can make you a healthier person. And we all know that a fire department is nothing without firefighters, and healthy firefighters are the best kind of firefighters you can have. So we've put a lot of resources into that program and I think it's working extremely well.

We were lucky to get a very skilled and experienced coordinator who is really dedicated to the program, carries a phone 24 hours a day and is pretty much always working. So, yeah, we're very happy with that, and I'm hoping to expand that program even further.

Firehouse: Are there other plans for the future? Do you have other things you can work on or are working on, other programs that you would like to see?

Treviño: We have so many things going on. I think we've touched on the important ones. Trying to keep pace with the growth is our biggest, our number-one concern, of course.

We have changed over to a new type of rescue. We've changed over to the medium-duty rescue unit chassis, which we think are a lot more efficient and a lot more user friendly in terms of use by the paramedics. As I said, our EMS program is I think going to continue to make our jobs safer and easier.

Firehouse: I saw something you said about apparatus leasing.

Treviño: One of the products of what we call explosive growth here is that it's hard to maintain a fleet, so what we end up with is heavily utilization and I would consider overutilization of apparatus. So the best way to get a large infusion of new replacement apparatus is I think through a lease.

Now, I'm sure you're familiar with government. The hardest dollars to come up with are the capital-improvement dollars, the large cash disbursements, which is usually where fire grants come from and they fall into that category. With fire engines selling in the mid-$300,000 range and with ladder trucks between $700,000 and $800,000, it doesn't take too many to add up into the millions of dollars. So what we're looking at is a lease program where we will renew apparatus on a constant basis through a lease, so that we don't keep them too long. I think four or five years would be the target.

If we were able to turn our apparatus over in five years, I think that we would see a marked improvement in our maintenance and the percentage of the time that our rigs are up and running.

Firehouse: In some of the past newsletters there have been a lot of reports on multiple-alarm fires in certain types of buildings? Is that constant?

Treviño: I would consider it regular. I don't think constant is quite the right word, but -

Firehouse: It's for varied reasons?

Treviño: Right. It's not unusual for us to have fires in what we call "stick cities," which are developments that are in the framing stage. There's virtually no fire protection there. The dry wall is not up yet and most importantly no one lives there yet, so even a small fire will become a large fire before it's reported. It's not unusual for us to have multiple home fires in a construction area maybe once a month.

Firehouse: I know you said you have a lot of people who go to the National Fire Academy. Do you always take advantage of that?

Treviño: As much as we can. That's been an area of emphasis for us in the past. Whenever possible, we will send people to the academy.

In fact, we send people to all different kinds of training. I think training is one of those things that will continue to be a priority for us because that's how we can incorporate those thing into our process. I think everybody's always got a great idea out there somewhere and the good thing about the fire service is that ideas are shared openly.

Firehouse: Regarding the hundred-year flood, do you have an emergency operations center here? Is that newly developed?

Treviño: No, actually the EOC (emergency operations center) here has been there for a number of years. There's also an EOC in the county, which is actually a newer development of that county building. The government center hasn't been there for too long. I think it's only about three years old.

Firehouse: Has that helped you? I mean, having that flood, has it helped you to pre-plan other potential operations?

Treviño: Yeah. Actually, activating the EOC for the flood illustrated for us any kind of holes in our planning or in our system, so we were able to go in after the fact and sharpen up our emergency plan and also make additions wherever they were needed because you don't know until you've actually used the system, how well it works. And it worked extremely well that day. But we were able to tweak the EOC even more after the flood.

Firehouse: Most people might not even realize you have a flooding potential and this apparently is common. Is that correct?

Treviño: Right. And I didn't understand that either. What you find is that in desert areas there is a tendency for moisture to run along the surface as opposed to sink into the ground as it does in other areas.

If you saw an aerial view of the Las Vegas area, you'd see what are called "washes" and they're usually like dry river beds, but in the case of heavy rains those become real rivers and it happens rather quickly. In fact, when you see a sign that says flash flood area, people sometimes get in trouble because they don't take that very seriously.

Even though they might be looking at a crystal-clear sunny day, it might be raining in another part of the valley and that rain will run off and become a river miles from the point of origin. That's how people get caught short and unsuspectingly get washed away in floods.

Sadly, two people here in the valley were killed on July 8. That just demonstrates the potential. You wouldn't think that a place like Las Vegas is a place where someone could die in a flood, but it did happen.

Firehouse: I just want to ask you to sum up, if there's anything in the future we didn't cover or anything that you would like to see happen, other than what we discussed.

Treviño: I don't want to focus on it too much here, but we've trained all of our staff with three courses from the fire academy on terrorism preparedness and we're going to be getting our regional terrorism training from the federal government.

That's going to continue to be a big focus for us. Not that we want to make much banter out of it, but sadly that's one of the realities of living when we do. Terrorism is a large concern, especially areas with a tourism-based economy such as we have.

We don't want people to feel as though they're exposed or they're in danger when they travel here, so we're doing everything we can behind the scenes to prepare and we're working with all of the other police, fire and federal agencies to help us to be as prepared as we can be. Now, clearly, I don't think any community can ever be 100% prepared because you really just don't know what the magnitude of the threat can be.

The research that we've done indicates that if a terror strike is of sufficient magnitude such as up to and including even a nuclear device or a mass-chemical or biological attack, it's really hard to prepare a community for the impact of that when you can see not dozens, but maybe hundreds or even thousands of patients and that would overwhelm any system, I think.

The best thing that we can do is to plan for the communication and for the organization of mitigating things done like that and just continue to work with everyone.

One of the things that I think is outstanding is the ability of the federal agencies to have precluded possible strikes. When I read about some of the things that haven't happened because of the diligence, whether it's the FBI or other agencies, it's better not to have to deal with it. It's kind of like fire prevention.

Clearly, the fire department isn't going to do any counter terrorism or terrorism prevention, because that's a federal area, but we really appreciate the fact that they're out there doing that and we want to work with them as much as we can.

Firehouse: Very good. Terrific.

Treviño: The University of Nevada/Las Vegas did a survey of all the services provided in the community, they polled to find out what people felt was the most important service that can be provided. And they also polled to find out with which service they are most satisfied, and in each case, fire protection came out number two out of I think 26 categories.

We have the second-highest satisfaction rate, which doesn't maybe sound as good as being the highest, but when you consider that entertainment was considered the number-one satisfaction rate, and in an area like Las Vegas I think that should be expected.

Fire protection was given the second-highest rating in terms of need, right after safe and secure neighborhoods. I think everyone would agree that safety is always going to be paramount, but that's indicative of a really healthy program, a healthy system and open communications.