Longtime Berkeley fire chief Gil Dong retires after more than 2 decades of service

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J. Hannah Lee/File

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Berkeley Fire Department’s long-serving fire chief, Gil Dong, announced his retirement Sept. 12 at a Berkeley City Council meeting.

The announcement came after Dong had served 27 years in the department, with four years as fire chief. Dong began his service with the fire department as a paramedic in 1990. After about a year and a half of service, Dong fought the infamous 1991 Oakland and Berkeley Hills firestorm that took 25 lives and destroyed 3,350 homes and apartments.

“It was apocalyptic to see the entire hillside on fire,” Dong said in a previous interview with The Daily Californian after the fire. “Being there to see that much fire destruction, you just can’t imagine that.”

Dong could not be reached for comment as of press time. In an email, BFD spokesperson and acting fire chief David Brannigan, who declined to comment, explained that Dong had been “very private” about his decision.

In June 2013, BFD appointed Dong as the city’s fire chief after the retirement of previous chief Debra Pryor. Upon assuming the role of fire chief, Dong worked to emphasize more communication with other emergency responders, city departments and the Berkeley Fire Fighters Association.

At the time of his appointment, Dong was the first Asian American fire chief in the continental United States. In a previous interview with The Daily Californian, he stressed the importance of hiring minorities and Asian Americans into the fire service and increasing diversity outreach.

Councilmember Linda Maio, who has known Dong for decades, said that when Dong was first appointed, the department had chosen the best person for the job. According to Maio, BFD takes its service “very seriously,” and Dong was dedicated and respected.

To Councilmember Ben Bartlett, Dong was a leader. With a recent increase in mental health calls, BFD had to maintain an active presence in responding to medical calls despite its limited resources.

“(Dong) really steered that department to grow with increasing social needs,” Bartlett said. “His teammates always had smiles on their faces, despite working long hours.”

Mark Coplan, former Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson, worked with Dong for about 15 years in assessing disaster preparedness among local schools. As part of this, Dong helped BFD train school district employees, including teachers, classroom assistants and janitors, in skills such as emergency first-aid training and small-fire suppression.

Efforts like these are hard to coordinate, according to Coplan. Coplan remembered an incident he witnessed Sunday on Wheeler Street in which the fire department was involved.

“As I was tripping around there … I was kind of looking around going, ‘Wow, Gil won’t be showing up,’ which was something you could always count on, whatever it was,” Coplan said.

Contact Sophia Brown-Heidenreich and Adrianna Buenviaje at [email protected].