San Luis Obispo, California Fire Chief is Leaving Job for Fullerton

Wolfgang Knabe, who painted San Luis Obispo's fire engines red and shepherded the city's fire department through numerous budget cuts, is stepping down after nearly three years as chief.

Knabe, 46, will take over the Fullerton Fire Department starting next month. There, he'll command a force twice the size of San Luis Obispo's 50-person fire department and add at least $40,000 to his $117,000 salary.

"I love San Luis Obispo, and I'm not discounting coming back here some time," Knabe said Thursday. "But at this time, for my family, the benefits and pay, this is the best option for us."

One of the strongest motives behind Knabe's decision, he said, was the steep cost of housing here.

Unable to find a house for his wife and five children, Knabe lived in a San Luis Obispo apartment and on the weekends visited his family, who remained at their old home in Simi Valley. He plans to commute about 70 miles every day from Simi Valley to his new job in Orange County.

"I joke about it, but with the amount of money I'm getting there, I can afford a house in San Luis Obispo," Knabe said.

The cost of housing is likely to be a challenge in replacing Knabe as well.

"It's always challenging to recruit in San Luis Obispo," said City Administrator Ken Hampian. "Our salaries are lower than you might find in bigger metropolitan areas and our housing costs are higher."

So when the city begins its search, officials will emphasize the area's quality of life and the quality of the department, Hampian said. He declined to speculate on whether the city will consider any internal candidates.

Battalion Chief Tom Zeulner will probably become acting chief until a replacement is found, San Luis Obispo Mayor Dave Romero said.

The German-born Knabe is no stranger to Southern California.

After several years in the U.S. Marine Corps, he spent 22 years as a firefighter in Los Angeles, retiring as a battalion chief.

He succeeded Bob Neumann as San Luis Obispo's fire chief in July 2002.

Despite budget cuts, Knabe is proud of his efforts to improve the agency's paramedic program and train staff on a new truck to handle a growing downtown, he said. He also boosted emergency response training in the community and helped firefighters stay current with their vehicle training.

But shallow pockets prevented Knabe from accomplishing some of his goals, he said, including a bigger public education program and more permanent administrative staff.

One of Knabe's most controversial moves was changing the color of the department's fleet from lime green to bright red.

Critics said the chief was wasting money on a makeover just to resemble fire trucks in big cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But Knabe argued the switch would make it easier for the agency to buy and resell used vehicles, as well as boost morale because of the tradition of the color.

"That was my own personal little favorite," Knabe said of the decision.

Sometime in the 1970s, the city switched from red to a pale shade somewhere between green and yellow, believe that color to be more visible, based on a safety study.

Knabe also raised eyebrows earlier this year by proposing that residents pay the city an annual fee for responding to medical emergencies. And he clashed occasionally with colleagues who resented his efforts to model local firefighting efforts on his experience with the Los Angeles Fire Department.

"Change is harder in more rural areas than in metropolitan areas," Knabe said. "It takes a while, especially when people have been around a while."

Still, Romero said, Knabe helped smooth relations between the City Council and the fire department, as well as other public safety agencies.

"I think he's done an outstanding job," Romero said.

Details remain before Knabe's new position is official, but Fullerton's mayor said he appears to be "a real good fit for the job."

"He seemed enthusiastic and vibrant and willing to commit to our city," Fullerton Mayor Shawn Nelson said. "That was a big deal to us. We don't want just a good administrator. We want a good citizen."

Distributed by the Associated Press