LEMON GROVE —
When Steve Swaney teaches classes at the local fire academy, he likes to play an old video.
The footage shows a 1999 fire at an El Cajon club, with flames bursting through windows and clawing at the roof.
Swaney asks if anyone could survive inside. Students usually say no.
Then the inferno goes dark by one window, then another. A firefighter walks out the front.
It was Swaney.
“You can’t just roll up in a ball and quit,” he said in a recent interview. “You gotta think your way through it.”
At the end of the month, Swaney, 60, will retire as chief of East County’s Heartland Fire and Rescue Department. His decades-long career includes responses to some of the nation’s worst disasters and an ongoing and significant overhaul of how officials handle emergency calls.
He was on hand with rescue dogs after the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and got on a plane to the East Coast hours after the towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. El Cajon, a city he oversees, will soon be one of the only places in the country to direct less serious 911 calls to nurses to reduce unnecessary ambulance trips and ER wait times.
Heartland also serves Lemon Grove and La Mesa, and officials around the region praised Swaney.
Lemon Grove Mayor Racquel Vasquez called him “innovative” while El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells said he “served us with honor and distinction,” after everyone at a council meeting gave Swaney a standing ovation.
“I’m proud that I was able to be a public servant,” Swaney said, “that I was able to be there at some of the worst times in people’s lives and been able to change or alter the outcome.”
Swaney has roots in Southern California.
Swaney, born in Detroit, and his family moved to Riverside when he was 6. He later graduated from what was then Junipero Serra High School in San Diego’s Tierrasanta neighborhood. (It has since been renamed Canyon Hills High School.)
Swaney joined the El Cajon Fire Department as a firefighter and paramedic in 1985 and became Heartland’s chief four years ago.
Some moments from his career are hard to forget.
Swaney recalled one December day when he rushed to save a 5-year-old girl who had fallen into a pool.
Hospital officials later concluded she was brain dead. But when they took her off life support, the girl opened her eyes and started talking to her mom, Swaney said. She was later discharged with just a case of pneumonia.
Others are less dramatic but still notable.
El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell shared one story about a firefighter whose kitchen burned down. Soon after, Swaney showed up on his day off to help rebuild the house, Mitchell said.
Swaney has trained rescue dogs, worked as a flight medic and steered the department through COVID-19 and the La Mesa riots.
He said one of the biggest challenges facing chiefs everywhere is recruitment. Training can take years, meaning leaders need to invest in people early, he said.
Bent Koch is one example.
As a young man, Koch emigrated from Estonia, in Northern Europe, to Julian. He had career options — Koch speaks five languages — but getting to know Swaney helped set his path.
Koch recalled standing next to Swaney in a burning cottage. The structure had been purposely set ablaze for a training exercise, and Koch was struck by how calmly and clearly Swaney narrated the fire. He seemed to know exactly where the flames were going, and why.
Koch is now a division chief at Heartland.
Swaney is leaving “huge shoes to fill,” Koch said in an interview. “Literally and figuratively.”
When asked if he had any regrets, Swaney said he wished he’d been able to spend more time with his wife and daughter.
Retirement should help address that. Swaney hopes to take his fifth-wheel trailer on trips to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
He’s also open to using his deep experience with search dogs to start a business helping private owners train their pets, especially dogs rescued from the pound.
“You only get so many days on this planet,” Swaney said. “I’m at the point now where I want to start enjoying those.”
Swaney’s last day in the office will be Dec. 29.
He will be replaced by Koch, according to La Mesa’s Assistant City Manager Carlo Tomaino. Koch started working for the city almost 25 years ago and will be sworn in at a Jan. 10 council meeting.