After 20 years with the Duluth Fire Department, Jon Otis has been promoted to a deputy chief role.

On Monday, Otis began serving in his new role as the deputy chief of life safety. Previously, he was a deputy fire marshal for four years and before that, a firefighter for 16 years.

"I am really excited for this opportunity and I'm excited, primarily, because I have such a great team already in place," Otis said.

PREVIOUSLY 20 Under 40: Jonathan Otis

Otis oversees the life safety division. Responsibilities that fall under the division include licensing landlords, serving tenants and fire safety outreach.

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"I'm really focusing on supporting the existing work at this time to get kind of a bird's-eye view of how things are working, what the operation is and identify anything that we can fix or change going forward," Otis said. "But it's important to get the team on board first."

Down the road Otis will also work more closely with Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj as deputy director of emergency management. However, he needs to first finish a few courses to receive a basic emergency management certificate, a process that has been delayed due to the pandemic.

Otis jokes he was in the "degree-in-a-decade program" when he moved to Duluth in 1994 for college. He didn't know what he wanted to do. He just knew he wanted to be in Duluth.

Then he was assigned a project to learn more about a job he was interested in. So he interviewed his two roommates, who were both in the firefighting industry.

"I realized after hearing them talk about the industry and the jobs that they were doing that this is what I wanted to do," Otis said.

The idea of helping and being there for people compelled him.

"And I liked the fact that every day was different. I liked the perceived adventure of it. I like the fact that you work very closely with a team of people to get something done," Otis said. "You're never on your own. You've always got a team of people supporting you."

Chief Krizaj said Otis was deemed a solid fit for the deputy chief role in part because of his experience with the department, advanced leadership training as well as his community engagement and involvement in organizations.

"He's really reached out beyond the field of firefighting to make those connections and to really build relationships that I think are going to help him in the future," Krizaj said. "One of the things that helps, especially when you're dealing with code enforcement or fire violations — whether that's in the rental licensing side or on the fire investigation side — knowing people ahead of time makes it easier to explain why it's important to follow the code."

The last person to hold the post of deputy chief of life safety was Marnie Grondahl, who retired in May. When she stepped into the role in 2019 she became the first woman to serve as a chief-level officer in the department.

At the time of her retirement the city of Duluth was in the depths of its COVID-19 financial uncertainty and wasn't able to hire.

So Krizaj and others filled in the gaps left from vacancies and pandemic-related job restructuring. More than seven months later, the fire department is starting to building up its administrative staffing again.

Early on in the pandemic, the fire department pulled several people from their office positions back onto the fire rigs.

"We really were focusing on our response in the community and making sure we had enough staff if we had people that had to go into quarantine," Krizaj said. "Now we've kind of stabilized there."

The fire department plans to bring on a few more people in the coming months.