Central County fire chief hangs it up this December

Come December, it’ll be time for Central County Fire Chief Bill Reilly to pack up the collectible fire engines and knickknacks in his office and start enjoying his delayed retirement.

He leaves behind binders of ideas he’s had over the years, a pager that goes off at all hours and a string of city government officials wondering how they’re going to fill his shoes.

Reilly, 59, retired officially last December — and maxed out his retirement benefits four years ago — but has stayed on part-time this year to make sure the fledgling Central County Fire Department, the result of a 2004 merger between Hillsborough and Burlingame, stayed on track.

Recruitment will likely start early next month for a new chief, City Manager Jim Nantell said. Because of the department’s relative newness and to ensure the new chief will know the ropes, the city will only search internally for Reilly’s replacement.

“It’s a rare person who can successfully deal with the city manager, city council and go to all the meetings, but also still gain favor with the rank-and-file,” Nantell said.

A San Francisco native, Reilly first planned on following in his police officer godfather’s footsteps, but was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967 and spent a year fighting in Vietnam. By 1969, he was a newly married truck driver and member of the Teamsters union, when a friend of the family who worked for the San Francisco Fire Department suggested he try firefighting.

He started in 1972 with the city of Burlingame at $785 a month, part of an all-male staff and armed with the only three certifications required at the time — a high school diploma and CPR and first-aid cards.

Reilly has since held nearly every job in the department, including shift training officer, fire marshal — his favorite — and truck captain. He ascended to fire chief in 1997.

“The first budget I did, I was $100,000 over,” Reilly said. “I promised never to do that again!”

He first proposed merging fire service with neighboring cities in 1994, but no one was interested. Around 2001, after budgets dipped with the economy, he renewed talks with Millbrae, Hillsborough and San Mateo. Millbrae didn’t have enough money to pay higher firefighters’ salary and benefits at the time, but Hillsborough officials embraced the concept, Reilly said.

In fiscal year 2004-05, the first year of operations for Central County Fire, Hillsborough and Burlingame saved a combined $1.2 million. In 2005-06, the savings were closer to $1.8 million.

“Bill was aware of the value of a merger,” Councilwoman Rosalie O’Mahony said. “He’s distinguished himself at all points by being respectful and gracious.”

Reilly said he will still be living in Burlingame with his wife, and will spend more time with his three children and two grandchildren.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I feel really good about this department,” Reilly said.

tramroop@examiner.com

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