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Albuquerque’s new fire chief has steadily worked his way up the departmental ladder for the last 21 years – from pipeman to driver to lieutenant to captain to battalion chief and fire marshal, with some paramedic school and dispatch duties along the way.
But Gene Gallegos’ career in public service actually started far away from the lights and sirens of emergency calls. Shortly after graduating from West Mesa High School and enrolling at what was then TVI, he took his first city job washing dishes at the Los Volcanes Senior Center.
He spent about three years at the center, moving up to breakfast cook and, eventually, into a position that had him leading senior fishing and hiking trips and helping develop other interactive programming.
Gallegos, whose father had been a civilian employee at Albuquerque Fire Rescue, was biding his time until he reached the department’s firefighter hiring age, which was then 21. But he said those early years working with the Senior Affairs Department continue to inform his professional and personal life.
Mostly, he said, he learned the importance of seizing the moment.
“It was a very good experience and a very humbling experience to listen to their stories, to make sure that I did not turn down opportunities or did not let opportunities pass me by,” Gallegos said in a recent interview from an administrative conference room at the city’s fire academy.
With that in mind, Gallegos, 43, said he knew better than to turn down the 2018 offer to take the city’s fire marshal job.
But he could not have known then how the position would ultimately raise his public profile. With the onset of the pandemic, the Fire Marshal’s Office moved full-force into the city’s public health order enforcement effort, and Gallegos became a frequent presence during Mayor Tim Keller’s COVID-19 media briefings.
“I got enlisted to be the face of educating the public and doing our best to keep everybody safe,” Gallegos said.
Under Gallegos’ leadership, Keller said, the Fire Marshal’s Office played an “instrumental” educational and enforcement role during the ever-evolving pandemic.
“Their support and flexibility helped us keep our community safe and informed,” Keller said in a statement. “(Gallegos’) experience and dedication to supporting our people and our city during his over 20 years with AFR are exactly what we need in a public safety leader.”
When Paul Dow – fire chief since 2018 – retired in April, Keller tapped Gallegos as his interim replacement. Last month, the mayor appointed Gallegos to the job on a permanent basis. The City Council confirmed him during its Dec. 20 meeting as Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael and some councilors sang his praises.
“I know he’ll make us all proud because of his work ethic and the kind of person he is,” Rael said prior to the vote.
Gallegos, who spent much of his AFR career working out of stations on East Central, said his goals as the department head include boosting the number of units in Southeast Albuquerque, where call volume is the highest. He also wants to recruit more paramedics – 88% of AFR calls are for emergency medical services – or get more existing firefighters to go through paramedic training. Gallegos said paramedics are prone to burnout, something he hopes to combat by providing them more flexibility to change assignments within the department.
Gallegos also said he looks forward to shepherding the next generation of firefighters, likening himself to a dad hoping his kids achieve even more than he did.
“I have some members and some future leaders of this department that I am so excited to see what they can do. … The future of this department is bright,” he said.