SLO fire chief to retire after 6 years marked by success — and controversy

San Luis Obispo Fire Chief Garret Olson — whose six years of leadership have been marked by improvements in safety and technology but also a costly controversy — is retiring after a 30-year firefighting career.

Olson, whose last day is set for Oct. 30, updated firefighters’ protective gear and older city facilities, upgraded the radio system and established a fire apparatus replacement program, according to city officials.

He also championed the city’s participation in the PulsePoint smart-phone app, which anyone can download to be notified if someone in their vicinity is suffering from a heart attack and 911 has been called.

The systems allows for a potentially quicker CPR response if citizens can arrive faster than first responders, potentially saving lives because of the short window in a dire cardiac emergency.

The ongoing cost to the city is about $8,000 per year for the program’s maintenance.

“Our community has been incredibly fortunate to have a leader such as Garret, who has made immeasurable contributions to the safety of our community, and the sophistication of our department,” said City Manager Derek Johnson. “I couldn’t be more pleased with how the department has evolved and the leadership Garret has demonstrated. With the recent completion of the Five-Year Strategic Plan, I feel confident in the future of the department.”

Olson, a second-generation firefighter, started his fire service career in 1988 with the Orange County Fire Department. He also served in Mesa and Scottsdale, Arizona, where he became chief in 2011. In 2001, he was deployed to New York to assist with recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

9-11 Memorial126129
Fire Chief Garret Olson and Police Chief Deanna Cantrell listen during the ceremony in memory of the first responders lost in the 2001 Sept. 11 attacks. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In 2012, Olson returned to California to serve as San Luis Obispo’s first deputy fire chief and a year later was selected as chief following the retirement of Chief Charlie Hines.

“Serving this community has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” Olson said in a statement. “While I wish we had discovered SLO earlier in our lives. I believe my wife and I have an unsurpassed appreciation for this amazing community. I leave this long and wonderful career with a heart full of gratitude. It has been an incredible honor to serve. I look forward to many years of enjoying and giving back.”

Along with his accomplishments, Olson’s tenure as SLO’s chief came with some controversy; he produced a video that was meant to be a humorous spoof of the sexy firefighter stereotype for the Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner in January 2017.

San Luis Obispo fire Chief Garret Olson shows off the PulsePoint app, which the city uses to help save lives by quickly alerting CPR-trained volunteers when there’s someone nearby who needs help. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The video, that allegedly sexually objectified firefighters, included Olson visiting the Chamber offices wearing a body cam, where he spoke with multiple employees, who jokingly referred to “hot,” “Full Monty” and “shirtless” firefighters.

Former City Manager Katie Lichtig appeared in the video as one of three women posing as male firefighters wearing muscle T-shirts that resembled naked male torsos. The video also cut to photos of muscled, shirtless men, presumably models.

The video resulted in an investigation that cost the city more than $50,000, and Olson’s pay was docked $5,442 — the equivalent of an eight-day suspension. Olson apologized for the video.

San Luis Obispo fire Chief Garret Olson, left, and former city police Chief Steve Gesell look over a model of the Sept. 11 memorial to be built in front of the fire station on Santa Barbara Street in San Luis Obispo. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Still, city officials in a statement credited Olson for many successes, including completing the department’s first Five-Year Strategic Plan, the update of the City’s Fire Master Plan to ensure continuity of services in developing areas of the city, and a new contract for fire and medical services to Cal Poly in anticipation of the university’s future growth, among other efforts.

Olson’s annual salary is $178,620, according to Human Resources Director Monica Irons.

Deputy Fire Chief Keith Aggson will assume the role of interim fire chief as the city begins the process to select a permanent replacement for Olson. Aggson’s annual salary is currently $155,376, and his new salary is expected to be determined early next week, Irons said.

“Keith is a consummate fire professional and has demonstrated a commitment of innovation and excellence and being a lifelong resident and fire professional, ready to continue his service to the city of San Luis Obispo,” Johnson said.

Local news matters: We rely on readers like you more than ever before, and we currently offer free access to five stories a month. Support us further with a digital subscription to help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune