“I can’t work if I don’t have a challenge in front of me,” said Guam Fire Department Chief Joey San Nicolas. “I keep looking for ways to improve equipment, training, fitness—mental and physical—moral, and pride.”
Every year the Guam Fire Department receives between 2,800 and 3,200 calls, 70 to 80 percent of which are for emergency medical assistance. When someone’s shaky fingers dial 911, Chief San Nicolas knows the caller expects a fast, reliable response. “We needed to instill the same [U.S.] standards of care, of service, on Guam, because why should we do anything less just because of our location?”
While a majority of fire department chiefs have been promoted after 30 years of service, San Nicolas advanced in 2011, around his 15th year in the department. Despite his youth—or because of it—he stepped up to the plate with the goal of raising expectations, not just for the GFD, but also for everyone around him.
“At least in the fire department, [that meant] changing the mindset of what it is today, compared to what it used to be—the standards people invest in themselves for upward mobility, instead of expecting the government to serve it on a silver platter.”
“Just like every kid, I always wanted to be a firefighter and had the fire truck,” San Nicolas revealed. He joined the fire department in 1995, when he was 20 years old and enrolled in the University of Guam full-time. The son of a career soldier, San Nicolas remembers his father telling him “to find a career outside of the military first, because the military will always be there.”
So he waited until 1998 to join the Coast Guard National Guard. On August 30, 2008 the Boatswain’s Mate 2nd transferred to the Guam Army National Guard, where he currently serves as Captain and Operations Officer of 1-294 Infantry Regiment.
While many runs in the fire department stand sharp in San Nicolas’ mind—including those that require a strong stomach to hear—he often looks back to his early on-the-job training. “I had a few runs toward the beginning that told me I was doing the right job, and one of them was on an ambulance with Dean Aguon, who is now Lt. Dean Aguon. We had a patient with chest pains, and I called out the things we needed to do. We did all the right things, but the patient crashed, so I did CPR and brought him back. He ended up walking out of the hospital, and that made me feel like I was in the right place.”
Born in Leesville, Louisiana, San Nicolas followed his father’s military orders around the world, seeing Hawaii, California, Germany, and New Jersey before stepping foot on Guam. But once here, he was home. “For me, personally, I have no desire to leave Guam.”
As a Chamorro kid with a stateside upbringing, San Nicolas was challenged to prove himself. “Everybody wants to challenge the kid from the States,” he reminisced. But his family always welcomed him with open arms and many of his cousins have become his best friends. “Back then, I was an athlete, played basketball and guitar. I liked to have fun and didn’t get into a lot of trouble. I always respected my elders, and didn’t have to be told to set up chairs for the party, I would just do it.”
In his off time, he spends the day with his wife Lori Taimanglo Borja and their children Lauren Tasi, Kamea Joy, and Rai-Kanoa Jayce. San Nicolas enjoys Chamorro music and island reggae, as well as acoustic songs like Jason Mraz, and is playing around with the idea of recording a few of his own tracks, “just for my bucket list,” he said.
While he plans to devote another decade to GFD, advance his National Guard rank, and complete his Master of Business Administration, he doesn’t think of himself when he thinks of success. “I think success for me is seeing success in others,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be things I did, but anything that makes it just a little better than it was yesterday, and raises the bar,” he concluded.