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Federal Nominee Helped Shape Monrovia's Fire Department

Recently nominated to head the United States Fire Administration by President Barack Obama, former Monrovia Fire Chief Ernest "Ernie" Mitchell Jr. once presided over major changes to the city's fire department.

If a senate committee confirms the (USFA) next month, he'll have reached the apex of a career that began in 1991 when he got his first fire chief job in Monrovia.

Mitchell was hired as the city's fire chief after climbing through the ranks of the Compton Fire Department and is remembered fondly by city officials and firefighters as an innovative administrator and a generous mentor.

"I think Ernie was not just a great fire chief, Ernie is a great human being," said Councilman Tom Adams. "I’ve never met anyone yet that didn’t like the man."

One of Mitchell's crowning achievements was expanding the fire department in the 1990s and spearheading an effort to build a second fire station in the south side of town, Adams said.

Before Mitchell, , which was a persistent concern for city officials who worried that a major earthquake would cause the 210 freeway overpasses to collapse and cut off emergency assistance to the southern portion of town, City Manager Scott Ochoa said.

Mitchell guided the department through the process of obtaining the land and building the station, now known as Fire Station 102 on South Myrtle Avenue. It was no easy task, but Adams said Mitchell navigated the process methodically.

"Ernie handled all the changes that were required to make that usable by the fire department and I think clearly left the Monrovia Fire Department in a much better position than when he found it," Adams said.

Ochoa remembers Mitchell as a genuine and accessible mentor whom he first met while "working in the basement" of city hall in 1991 as an intern. Mitchell took an interest in the personal and professional lives of his employees and colleagues and made himself available to the community, Ochoa said.

"The hallmark that I will take away form Ernie's tenure in Monrovia is that he was a thinker and strategist and a tremendous mentor," Ochoa said. "He was one of those really cool guys willing to carve out time for that next generation."

Monrovia Fire Battalion Chief Scott Haberle was hired by Mitchell in 1992, and he echoed Ochoa's characterization of Mitchell as an exceptional leader and role model. Mitchell was gifted in both the tactical and administrative components of his job and had great communication skills, Haberle said.

"I learned so much from him," Haberle said.

Firefighter Michael Bailey was also hired by Mitchell in the early 90s and said Mitchell's experience and knowledge of firefighting made him a terrific resource for younger firefighters.

"He has always been a big inspiration to myself and I’m sure quite a lot of other individuals here in Monrovia," Bailey said.

Mitchell left Monrovia in 1998 and joined the Pasadena Fire Department, where he served as chief and assistant director of disaster emergency services until 2004.

Mitchell became the president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) from 2003 to 2004 and currently serves on its President’s Council, according to the IAFC. He is also a board member on the International Association of Fire Fighters' Hazardous Materials Advisory Board and the International Fire Service Training Association's Executive Board.

Mitchell declined a request to be interviewed for this story, citing federal policy that discourages nominees from publicly commenting during the appointment process.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will consider Mitchell's nomination to the position of Administrator to the USFA next month.

The USFA is a division of the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It is charged with providing "national leadership to foster a solid foundation for our fire and emergency services stakeholders in prevention, preparedness, and response," according to the USFA website.

Haberle and Bailey said that Mitchell has already been influential in firefighting nationwide and getting elevated to the top spot with USFA will serve as a recognition of those efforts.

"We’re all pretty proud to say that we worked for him considering where he is now," Bailey said.

Betty Sandford August 09, 2011 at 04:00 PM
I can't judge Ernie as a fire chief but I do remember that the Mitchells were very active in the community.
Ralph Walker August 09, 2011 at 05:20 PM
Just a natural born leader in an profession that has not allowed many African American to excel. What an inspiration for so many. Erine we wish you well.
Jennifer Boone August 10, 2011 at 03:16 AM
Congratulations Captain Mitchell. You definitely agree, he left the Monrovia Fire Department in a better place than when he found. A great role model for all children and an open door for more children to attain the same goal. Jennifer Boone

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