A special Ceres Fire Department promotion ceremony was conducted Thursday evening at the Ceres Community Center to elevate John Gomes to the position of battalion chief and Bret Presson as a fire captain.
Gomes, who had been serving as a captain, replaces Mike Lillie who resigned in December to join Modesto Fire Department.
Formerly a fire engineer, Presson is Gomes' replacement.
A battalion chief is in charge of a shift and all of Ceres' four fire stations. A captain is in charge of a station and all of the crews on the engine.
Gomes, 47, started out firefighting in 1991 as a volunteer with Westport Fire Protection District after his cousin Eddie Amador prompted him to think about it as a career. In 1993 John joined the Ceres Fire Department and was promoted as captain in 2000.
Gomes said that 25 years ago he was so green as a firefighter that he didn't even know how to put on his turnouts. His first call was to a car wreck on Crows Landing Road in front of the El Rematito Flea Market. Gomes laughed that he couldn't get his suspenders on because "they were in my crotch." He was also wearing tennis shoes because Westport didn't have boots that fit.
"I remember walking to the scene and I think it was Greg Nunes at the time kind of looking at me and snickering and like ‘what are you doing?' I didn't know what he was laughing at but he was laughing at me because I had tennis shoes on and I looked like a dork."
He thanked former Westport Fire chiefs Ed Tobler and Gary Thompson for getting into firefighting.
Today Gomes is an emergency medical technician, a hazardous materials technician, and a state certified fire officer. He and his wife Jenni have two children, Carly and Jay, 15, Ceres High School sophomores.
Presson was born and raised in Ceres and graduated from Ceres High School in 2005, the same year he began volunteering at Westport Fire. A year later he was promoted as an engineer at Westport and a captain in 2007. He assisted in training and conducting probationary trainings. In 2010 Presson was promoted to battalion chief and training officer. In 2008 Bret was hired by Ceres Fire Department as a firefighter and then resigned from Westport in 2011 to become the training coordinator for Ceres Fire Department. In 2012 Presson conducted the firefighter academy for six new recruits paid for by the SAFER grant. Bret was named 2012 Firefighter of the Year. He is also an asset to the department as a certified fire officer, Level I instructor and Level 1 fire investigator.
He thanked his wife for her support and his parents for prodding him to "go farther and do better."
He and wife Jessica have a young daughter and another child on the way.
Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes said he will be holding another ceremony within 45 to 60 days to install six new firefighters being hired as part of the $1.2 million federal Staffing for Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant administered by the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The grant covers a two-year period and firefighters who are hired by the funds may not remain employed after two years if the city cannot find the funds to retain them.
The grant allowed Ceres to reopen Ceres Fire Station #3 on Service Road near Crows Landing Road.
Nicholes is technically hiring five new firefighters and the grant allows the city to retain existing grant-funded firefighter Will Dyer. He was one of six firefighters funded when the city received its first SAFER grant in 2012. When 2012 funds were expended in 2014, the city nearly issued pink slips to those whose salaries were funded by the grant, prompting firefighters to conduct a desperate public relations effort to bear pressure on the City Council to come up with the money. The council resented the effort but allowed fire personnel to craft creative ways to retain the firefighters. To make that happen, the council agreed to dip into Measure H tax funds by $100,000 as part of a way to cover the $393,000 expense for the remainder of the year to keep the six. The city also saved in overtime costs by "browning out" Ceres Fire Station #3, since it experiences the least call volume of all four stations. Call response times in southwest Ceres have not suffered, officials have said.
Mayor Chris Vierra issued a warning to the department to not expect the new firefighters to remain employed at the end of the two-year grant cycle.
SAFER grants provide financial assistance to help fire departments increase frontline firefighters, retain firefighters facing imminent layoffs, or fill positions that were vacated through attrition. The goal of the SAFER Grants is to assist local fire departments with staffing and deployment capabilities in order to respond to emergencies, assuring communities have adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards.