As of July 22, Ales (pronounced Al-esh) Tomaier takes the reins as the new Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief. Tomaier is a 19-year veteran of the department who started as a volunteer in 2003.
He succeeds the retiring Frank Frievalt, who had served as chief since 2012.
Frievalt says Tomaier’s ascension should’t be viewed as a simple ‘local boy makes good’ story, or a local guy stumbling into a vacancy.
This is the story of a guy who has the credentials and temperament and work ethic to be great. And was selected among 15 candidates who were identified, with the help of the Western Fire Chiefs Assn., who met the qualifications for the job.
“When I got here in 2012,” said Frievalt, “Ales always had … you’d give him a task and he’d own it and he was a problem solver and he would always give you more than you’d asked.”
And that, said Frievalt, is a prerequisite for leadership.
“He represents the type of civil servant we all wish we had.” In short, Tomaier is a standard bearer, and as Frievalt concluded, one of maybe three people he can think of whom he’s encountered in his entire career who is the perfect fit to lead Mammoth’s top-notch department in these fragile and uncertain times.
John Mendel and Carol Schilz were the members of the Fire Department board who led the search committee.
Mendel said of the original 15 identified candidates, four were ultimately interviewed – two internal and two external.
The internal candidates were the top two choices, which Mendel said demonstrates the depth of the department’s leadership pool.
The other top finalist, Natalie Morrow, will continue to serve as the local Fire Marshal.
Schilz, who has served seven years as a board member, ticked off the personal qualities that made Tomaier her choice: Amiable, intelligent, high ethical standards, budget experience, and a good collaborator with other agencies. “He has a full comprehension of what we need.”
Tomaier was born in the Czech Republic but his family emigrated to the U.S. during the communist era.
He grew up in L.A. and was introduced to the area via his participation on the UCLA Ski & Snowboard team.
He graduated from UCLA in 2002, took a gap year after college and never left.
When he started as a volunteer with the department in 2003, 9/11 was still relatively fresh in Tomaier’s mind, and he had that image ingrained within him of firefighters heading up the stairs while everyone else is coming down. That’s what inspires him.
As well as the leadership of mentors like the late Larry Myrold.
Because Mammoth’s is a largely volunteer department (there are just four full-time paid employees), as Tomaier rose through the ranks, he still had to figure out how to make a living. Which is why he returned to UCLA in his early career for paramedic training.
As a bookend, he is now on the verge (within the next month) of completing his Masters in Public Administration.
He married his wife Michelle in 2007. They have three children.
Tomaier said the biggest focus for the department right now is on recruitment/retention.
Which is extremely difficult right now, particularly with the challenge posed in cost-of-living as well as housing recruits.
While the MLFD had an excellent recruiting year and sent 19 to fire academy, Tomaier said the reality is you’ll lose one-third of those recruits before they get to the starting line, and you’ll lose another half within a year.
It’s unprecedented the number of recruits and volunteers who are currently living in their vehicles.
Despite those challenges, Tomaier says it’s not just about finding ways to compensate people and it’s not just about money. “We need to bring in people for the right reasons who enjoy it,” he said. “And we need to provide good leadership and demonstrate purpose.”
Sheet: Is the Town setting aside workforce housing units [at the Parcel] for Fire personnel?
Tomaier: Our housing needs are more urgent than the rest of the community because a key component of what we do and our level of success relates to response times. I know Chief Frievalt has had discussions with the Town over housing … we need to house thirty people.
Town Manager Dan Holler said, “We have discussed supporting [housing] development on property they own. We don’t have a priority for them per se, but as we have worked with other agencies, we would assist.”
The other top priority enumerated by Tomaier is wildfire, which is an ever-increasing existential threat.
“Mammoth is unique in that it’s four square miles of fairly complex commercial/residential development surrounded by public land. We’re a small district and have limited support … and firefighting is a lousy business model. It’s big lulls interspersed with intense short-term needs and labor requirements.”
It’s a tough gig, but Frievalt is confident Mammoth has the right guy and says he can rest easy as he heads into retirement knowing the department is in good hands.