Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lifelong Ambition Pays Off for New Berkeley Fire Chief

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- As a youngster in the mid-1970s, Gil Dong grew up watching the television drama "Emergency!" and decided the lifesaving feats of the show's paramedic lead characters, John Gage and Roy DeSoto, were worthy of a career. 

"That's what I wanted to do," said Dong, 49, who was appointed fire chief by the Berkeley City Council Tuesday night after working his way up the ranks over 23 years. 

"I also must have been destined to be a fireman, because when I was 6 years old I pulled a fire alarm on the street in San Francisco just so I could see the fire engines," Dong said. 

He starts the $198,000 a year position July 7 after a career that began when he became a paramedic in 1982. His career in Berkeley started in 1990. 

"I'm excited and honored to serve the city," Dong said. 

Dong replaces former Fire Chief Debra Pryor, who retired in December. 

While the television show planted the seed in his brain, it was a real life emergency -- when his dad was saved by paramedics in 1978 -- that solidified his desire to join the fire department. At the time, Dong was 14 and taking a two-weekend CPR class from paramedics in South San Francisco. 

"He collapsed from a heart attack and the South San Francisco paramedics resuscitated him, and he lived a long life until 2005," Dong said. "So at the next CPR class I was able to thank them for saving him." 

Four years later, Dong started working as an emergency medical technician for private ambulance companies, then worked for a time as a paramedic in Oakland and San Mateo County, and in 1989 was hired in Burlingame as a firefighter. 

He had doubts about moving from paramedic to firefighter because of his size. 

"I was a short kid, a skinny kid," Dong said. "I wanted to be a firefighter, but they all looked like 6-foot-2 athletes. The firefighters encouraged me, I took the tests and passed." 

Dong has held a variety of positions in the Berkeley department, including paramedic, apparatus operator, lieutenant, fire captain, assistant fire chief and deputy fire chief. He was named acting chief in December 

Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at

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