You might never guess that this tan, fit man who runs the Redondo Beach Fire Department with such innovation and efficiency is a notorious practical joker.
Playing elaborate pranks on city officials is just one of the things Chief Dan Madrigal, 55, will sorely miss when he retires his badge at the end of the year.
Not that the fire chief plans to retire his sense of humor. He doesn't plan to deviate from his goal of traveling to some of the hot spots he missed as a teenager because “I got hired in the fire department so young,” either, he said.
Unlike his buddies who graduated with him from Lowell High School in Whittier, Madrigal never experienced those high old times surfing in places like Cabo San Lucas and Costa Rica. Instead, he was climbing ladders and pulling hoses at the Fire Academy at Santa Ana College.
A year later, he was working as a firefighter at the Los Alamitos Fire Department—a 19-year-old rookie who would go on to take advantage of every promotional opportunity available, especially at the Huntington Beach Fire Department, where he worked for 22 years.
Now, after 36 years in the fire service—the last 10 in Redondo Beach—he intends to “go to the places I never got to go, take that surf board and have some fun,” he said in an interview last week.
Madrigal, who is divorced and lives in Laguna Hills, also wants to spend more time with his kids, whose pictures dominate his office at Fire Station No. 1 in South Redondo Beach.
Son Christian, 23, just graduated from UCLA in the paramedic program, Madrigal says, beaming with parental pride. Daughter Colby, 20, an ambulance EMT, dreams of becoming a doctor.
Where those “first responder” genes came from, “I can’t imagine,” he laughed.
Madrigal also feels fortunate to have both parents, including a stepfather, who still live in the La Habra/Whittier area where he was born. "I'm just very blessed to have time to spend with them in their latter years," he said.
His own desire to become a firefighter ignited in his junior year at Lowell, when his high school sweetheart took him to the Orange County fire station where her father worked. Madrigal liked what he saw.
“In my senior year, I took an ROP class (Regional Occupation Program), at the fire department and got interested,” he said.
But the reality of his first job with the Los Alamitos Fire Department proved something of a departure from his romantic notions, as well as from his academy training.
“You can read about a (multi-victim) car accident in a book and (learn) how you prioritize treatment,” he said. “But when you’re out there, and you see it, and you have the trauma and the blood, and the screaming and the visuals, the gasoline spilling,” the magnitude of the situation can be overwhelming.
Prioritizing, like quick thinking, soon became second nature to Madrigal, and after a year, he was ready for bigger challenges and transferred to the Stanton Fire Department. Then, in 1980, he went to Huntington Beach, where he progressed from firefighter to engineer to fire inspector to captain to deputy fire marshal.
It was in Huntington Beach that he underwent a professional metamorphosis. The year was 1984, and involved what was known as The Wild Oats Fire. “It was a very large industrial fire in a brick building, and one of the fire engineers was walking relatively close to the building when a wall collapsed on top of him,” he said.
Madrigal and other firefighters ran over and started pulling bricks off their buried buddy. "As we pulled him out, he looked like a rag doll," he said. "We thought he was dead."
Although the engineer lived, Madrigal never forgot the image: “It was one of those moments that changed my life as a firefighter.”
The incident taught him to never take anything for granted. In the case of the brick building, for example, “walls typically collapse in; this one collapsed out,” he explained.
By the time Madrigal signed on with Redondo Beach Fire Department in 2002, he had pretty much done it all—from front-line firefighting to supervising personnel to enforcing fire codes.
Hired by retired Fire Chief Pat Aust (now a councilman), Madrigal came into Redondo as “a division chief in charge of the fire marshals because I’d had a strong background in code enforcement,” he said.
In 2005, when City Manager Bill Workman decided to look internally for a new chief, he and Madrigal sat down and talked about everything from management philosophy to budgeting.
The fire chief believes his “well-rounded” background and personal drive made him a good fit for the job.
One of the things firefighters like about Madrigal is his “open door policy,” said Richard Kuciemba, a hazmat investigator who joined the department in 2003. “You can step in and discuss things with him." Unlike some chiefs, he added, "He’s not at all intimidating.”
Both men live in Orange County, and Kuciemba, who carpools to and from work with Madrigal, said his boss is “different away from the guys than when he’s around them.” At the office, he’s “a very serious chief.” Pranks are reserved for department heads and city officials, he added.
But Kuciemba's favorite image of Madrigal is a funny one that goes back to when both worked for Huntington Beach Fire Department. “He was an inspector for many years, and my vision of him is running around with a clip board, perfect hair and a cute little sweater vest they used to make him wear,” Kuciemba said. “That will make him laugh.”
As for Madrigal, he clearly reveres his firefighters; he talks of them as heroes and goes on at length about their extra efforts like the Family Assistance Program, a fund the firemen administer themselves that helps individuals who may have lost everything in a fire or other disaster.
The chief is just as apt to rave about the cooking at the station, a tantalizing temptation at 5 p.m. when he’s getting ready to go home. “Sometimes I think they intentionally pipe the smoke over here, because it smells so good!” he said.
A few firefighters "have actually gone to cooking schools and are right on the verge of being true chefs,” he said. “They can make basic tacos taste so good that the next thing you know you’ve eaten eight of them and you need a wheel chair to wheel out of here.”
On the serious side, the improvements made under Madrigal’s watch point to his strengths as a leader, one who grasps the necessity and economics of innovation.
In digitizing the 911 dispatch system, for example, Madrigal reduced from 45 seconds to 6 seconds the time it takes to pinpoint a fire or accident. He also abandoned outdated radios and acquired funding for new ones that allow for "complete interoperability with our neighboring jurisdictions," he said. "I'm extremely proud of that."
Along with acquiring new management software for the department’s building occupancy inspection programs, Madrigal equipped fire engines with mobile data computers, which provide all manner of helpful information.
“As an engine is leaving station,” he said, “the captain knows where the emergency is, what the address is, how to get there, previous history, (and if there) are any hazardous materials” at the site.
Having learned from sessions with New York firefighters who survived the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he bolstered the department’s disaster preparedness and emergency procedures, including revamping and refurnishing the city’s Emergency Operations Center at the police department “so the city manager, if there is a disaster, could operate and the continuity of government” could be preserved.
Along with building a new harbor patrol station on Marina Way, Madrigal revitalized the Automatic Aid Agreement between neighboring cities. “We always shared our resources, but it was a very formalized process,” he said.
He wanted an automatic response system, so that if, say, Hermosa had a fire and Redondo was available, an engine would be dispatched without going through a lot of red tape.
“I pushed very hard for that,” said Madrigal, explaining how Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach now “truly operate as one department, even though we’re independent." The important point, he said, is that "our resources are deployed seamlessly.”
But all the fire chief’s foresight, expertise and creativity hardly spell out the personality of this buoyant man with the slick black hair and merry twinkle in his eyes, a man who loves to laugh almost as much as he loves to make other city officials laugh.
Take the joke he played on his good friend, Redondo Police Chief Joe Leonardi, 58, after Leonardi ditched his police car and hopped on a bike last July to apprehend a criminal, also on a bike.
“Joe told us he got this bicycle and it had a basket on it," Madrigal said. "He said how he felt like he was the witch in The Wizard of Oz, how his coat was flapping in the wind...”
The picture the police chief painted was "so funny," Madrigal said, that he got a clip of the scene and resorted to a quick cut and paste. “I got one of the firefighters here, who’s pretty creative, to put Joe’s head on (the witch riding the bicycle) and sent it out to all the department heads.”
There are two sides to every joke, of course, and Leonardi has his own tales to tell.
“(Dan’s) antics go beyond the bicycle caper,” Leonardi said.
One morning, for example, the two met at the same South Bay doctor’s office by chance. Leonardi went into one of the consultation rooms and was speaking with a surgeon when there was a knock on the door.
“Dan, thinking that I was in the room alone, was standing at the door with an operating room smock, a mask, a head cover, latex gloves and lubricant," Leonardi said. "The surgeon looked at him and calmly closed the door.”
Leonardi managed to get back at his friend after he found that Madrigal had altered a Power Point presentation about the Fire Department’s annual budget for a Leadership Redondo group. “He was very proud of himself that he prepared a slide with a picture of me and a donut as one of his last slides.”
But Madrigal made the mistake of leaving the presentation on a network directory.
On the day of the presentation, Leonardi said, Dan “became giddy with excitement, thinking that his slide with my picture was going to appear.” Instead, Madrigal saw a picture of himself in uniform and wearing a pink cowboy hat.
“We have traded a number of other practical jokes through the years both on and off duty,” Leonardi said. “On the one hand, there are people who would think that the jokes are a waste of time and juvenile. However, I have a different perspective.”
Departmental success, the police chief said, whether internally or with other departments or the public “is based on relationships. They can be positive or negative relationships. I have been lucky in the last six years to have Dan as the fire chief and as a friend. The benefit of that friendship has reached to many more than the two of us alone.”
Leonardi couldn’t resist a parting shot, however: “Like other firefighters, (Dan) still has to have zippers on his work boots because he can’t tie his own shoes.”
Back at the fire station, Madrigal stood behind his desk at the conclusion of the interview and said with a sad smile, “I’m going to miss all this.”