Woodside Fire Protection District Chief Dan Ghiorso is a talkative and engaging speaker, as anyone who has heard him at a Town Council meeting in Woodside or Portola Valley can attest.
Ghiorso has a lot to reflect on after his 28 years in the department with his retirement coming up on April 27. He'll be replaced by his current second-in-command, Deputy Fire Chief Rob Lindner.
Woodside is the only place Ghiorso has worked since beginning his firefighting career in 1991. The district includes Woodside, Portola Valley, Ladera, and unincorporated areas of San Mateo County.
Ghiorso, 59, grew up in South San Francisco and attended a Catholic seminary for high school, with the idea of joining the priesthood, before deciding a clerical collar wasn't a good fit. But he still carries on a kind of religious enthusiasm for everything about his career and life in general.
An early career incident when he was working at a car dealership sealed a commitment to public service.
"One day an elderly gentleman came in and suddenly collapsed with blood coming out of his ears," he said. "There was nothing any of us could do to help him, and at that point I decided I wanted to do something where I could help people in that kind of emergency. I told my wife I never wanted that to happen again."
Ghiorso started with Woodside as a cadet in 1991 and had a number of roles, including as a paramedic and a battalion chief, before being elevated to the top job in the district in 2011.
Although his crew of 45 has helped to fight wildfires around California, the potential of wildfires closer to home has Woodside and Portola Valley residents heated up. A March 27 Portola Valley Town Council meeting drew an overflow crowd to look for solutions.
Some of the issues discussed at that meeting included alerting residents to escape routes out of town, working with Pacific Gas and Electric Company to reduce the risk of sparking power lines, working on brush clearing and "home hardening," which could entail banning wooden shake roofs and encouraging fire-resistant siding, along with other steps.
"Don't wait for me to come (during a wildfire) because by that time it will probably be too late," he said. "It's better to evacuate and drive 20 miles and then come back than be overtaken by fire."
Although they are relatively well paid, firefighters are aware that they face greater health risks than the general population, Ghiorso said.
Their exposure to carcinogens both in fighting fires and in fire houses is enough of a concern that a number of states have passed laws designed to help firefighters who develop cancer, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, based in Burbank.
Ghiorso was diagnosed with skin cancer two years ago, which is now in remission.
"One day I reached down to scratch my leg and asked myself, 'Why does that hurt?'" he said. "I went to the doctor and he told me that the sun rays go through your clothes, so if you're outdoors a lot you're at risk for cancer."
Doctors have taken out a large chunk of tissue from his left leg, which he said now has no feeling.
Cancer risk is one of a number of reasons the district wants to replace its No. 7 fire station on Woodside Road, one of three stations in the district. (The other two are in Portola Valley and Emerald Hills.) The station was built in 1949 and has inadequate capability for extracting fumes from firetruck exhaust, so firefighters can be exposed to toxic air quality, Ghiorso said.
"We're trying to adjust plans for the new station so it will be a more healthy living situation," he said. The district is exploring fundraising options for the project.
Employee recruitment is also an important issue. There is still plenty of interest in firefighting as a career, he said. Local qualification tests for firefighter training on the Peninsula typically draw 1,000 potential employees.
"We're seeing many more candidates with college degrees than we used to," he said. "I tell people who are interested that for me it's never been a job, it's a calling."
At the same time, recruiting female applicants is a problem. There are dozens of women applicants compared with the hundreds of men who want to go into the field. The district has no female firefighters, and beginning female firefighters tend to go to districts that already have women on staff, Ghiorso said.
After retirement, Ghiorso plans to continue coaching Little League baseball in Foster City, where he lives with his wife and five children, and teaching fire science classes at College of San Mateo.
"My eldest son wants to become a firefighter, which gives me some concerns," he said. "It's a dangerous job."
He will not be destitute in retirement. His annual pension will be $199,300, according to a district release.
"Dan will always tell you he is a part of the Fire Service," Woodside Fire Protection District board President Matt Miller said in an email. "He emphasizes the 'service' part of the job because that's how he sees it. Our department serves our community and each of our employees is a service provider. That attitude embodies how Chief Ghiorso sees the role of the department in the community and how he expects his team to see themselves."
Ghiorso says he plans to keep in touch with people in the district after he leaves.
"It's been the most awesome part of my life, and I've made lifetime friends," he said. "I want to express my gratitude to the community. I'm going to miss them."