The search for the Lompoc Fire Department’s new chief ended with Alicia Welch, who will be sworn in during a badge-pinning ceremony at the City Council meeting on Aug. 17.
Welch will be leaving her current position as the chief of the Golden Fire Department in Colorado, where she worked since November 2018.
She will be Lompoc’s first female fire chief, although that’s incidental to why she was selected for the job. With 29 years of experience that includes fighting house fires, wildfires, investigating firefighter deaths and leadership, Welch will be joining a highly trained team that has formed its own type of grit.
“You develop resilience over time as a public safety provider,” Welch said. “I feel like I bring the willingness and ability to listen to people. I’m coming into a team that I think is strong.”
Welch will take the reins from interim chief Brian Federmann, who will resume duty as a battalion chief, according to Jim Throop, city manager.
A native Californian, Welch was born in the Los Angeles area to parents who were Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputies. She wasn't attracted to a public safety career, until about 1988, while attending Cal State Long Beach.
Welch was earning her degree in recreation management and working for the city of Long Beach when one day she noticed her check stub contained a message that the fire department was recruiting women and minorities.
She told her parents, who were supportive and brought her to a Los Angeles fire station, introducing her to a friend of theirs, who was a captain. Shortly after, she took fire science classes and began the application process. Her parents now live on the Central Coast, in Cayucos.
Welch attended a panel of women firefighters in downtown Los Angeles, where they talked about why they love the job. To her, that was a sign.
“I saw that as a 21-year-old kid and I knew right away that’s what I wanted to pursue,” Welch said. “It was like a switch flipped. Let's learn more about this.”
The big question was whether she should finish her degree.
Welch met Roxanne Bursik of the Los Angeles Fire Department, who became the first female fire captain in a major city at the time, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Bursik told Welch to complete her degree, which she did and was ultimately hired by the department in 1990. Welch was considered a "bookworm" at the time because she had a degree, although these days it's common for recruits to have college education, according to Welch.
Firefighting school was a life-changing experience for Welch. After learning the basics, she was a probationary firefighter for one year, serving in engine and truck company operations, and in emergency medical services.
Welch was barely off probation when she was assigned a probationary firefighter. Now she had to be a mentor and was only one year on the job.
“After one whole year, you’re the senior person, you have to help and support them through training,” Welch said. “I remember feeling kind of frustrated because I felt like I want to learn my job.”
Welch rose through the LAFD ranks, retiring as a battalion chief in 2017 before cutting retirement short to take the Colorado position.
In her nearly 30 years as a firefighter, Welch has experienced a variety of scenarios, including responding to house fires sparked by cannabis grow operations.
She's also pleased, she said, to see that the Lompoc City Council on June 1 approved an Aug. 31 special election ballot measure that would add a graduated cannabis tax of a half-cent to two and a half cents per dollar to pay for public services.
"It’s no secret that the town is coming out of a recession and I know that I’m coming into that," Welch said.
Upon arrival in Lompoc, Welch immediately plans to get to work training and finding common ground with her firefighters. She also brings a spirit of collaboration, given how close the LFD works with federal firefighting agencies in the area.
To Welch, it's not new that she is a female fire chief, but she knows it's inspirational to others.
"It’s meaningful that little girls and people of color, and hopefully little boys too, can look at me and look at my male counterparts and say that I can do that too," Welch said. "They’re important jobs, these peoples' lives are on my shoulders and I take that seriously."