Human rights activist Marina Schuster speaks for Bhutto-Ispahani lecture series.
Pete Jankowski has combined heroic experience with a college degree from the University of La Verne to reach the top spot in the City of La Verne Fire Department.
Two days after Hurricane Katrina tore through the South, Pete Jankowski ’10 found himself in Mississippi with no running water, no power and surviving off Military MREs (meals ready to eat). Tasked with the mission of providing aid and relief to the masses, including rescuers themselves, it was a challenging 32 days he would never forget.
But like most challenges that have come his way, Jankowski had an action plan to pull him through: work hard and take a few risks. He has used this approach to get ahead in life, and it’s something others have seen in him as well, particularly the city of La Verne.
In early June, Jankowski was appointed interim Fire Chief for the city of La Verne, succeeding John Breaux, who announced his retirement effective June 28. This time, Jankowski’s action plan included a degree from the University of La Verne.
Jankowski, who received his bachelor’s degree in public administration through La Verne’s Campus Accelerated Program for Adults (CAPA) in May 2010, has worked for the La Verne Fire Department the past 13 years, most recently serving as Battalion Chief.
Like most emergency service veterans, he has been around and has seen a lot. From chasing wildfires across the western United States to providing medical aid during hurricane disasters, Jankowski has been there, facing challenging and, at times, life-threatening situations.
Hurricane Katrina disaster relief presented a few such moments.
In 2005, while working for the La Verne Fire Department, Jankowski was also a command staff member of California Incident Management Team 4, one of 17 national incident management teams. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requested that his team deploy to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina hit, he was ready.
“We traveled to the local hospital, where they were inundated with people,” Jankowski said. “Doctors and nurses provided care around the clock, even though they themselves were suffering immense loss. They continued to do their job even though their own personal lives were altered forever.”
Living in unsanitary situations with hundreds of other rescue crews, his team’s goal was to set up base camps to relieve the firefighters, doctors and rescuers who needed aid themselves.
Without running water, electricity or stores open for business, there were few options for food and supplies, making it challenging not only to care for those hurt and sick, but also to look after himself and his team.
“It was a life-changing experience,” said Jankowski, who admits he thrives on conquering life’s biggest challenges and says he began to seek out some of them long ago.
As a youngster in college during the late 1980s, he was attending Northern Michigan University, trying to determine his calling. He didn’t know what that was right away, but he had a curiosity and a desire to do well.
“I was looking for a part-time job and couldn’t find one,” Jankowski said. “I frequently saw ambulances go by and so I thought, ‘Why not start there?’ ”
He had already taken an emergency medical technician (EMT) course at Chaffey College, and after realizing a new passion for being involved with emergency rescue, he snagged his first job at a local private ambulance company.
Not only did he enjoy helping people in emergency situations, he excelled at it, prompting him to continue on to paramedic school, and by the 1990s, the Fire Academy at Crafton Hills College.
“I knew that, for me, long term, going into the fire service was going to provide that ongoing challenge and excitement,” Jankowski said.
Jankowski’s training afforded him an exciting and rewarding career in rescue operations for more than 20 years. But it was during the past decade, working at the La Verne Fire Department, that he began to think about a different kind of challenge.
With the fire department located directly across the street from the University of La Verne, Jankowski was constantly reminded about the possibility of going back to school to earn a degree.
Being a husband, a father of two and a fireman was already a huge responsibility.
“I didn’t know what it would take to go back,” he said. “I always saw signs across campus for informational sessions on the CAPA program. One day, I told my wife that I was going to attend one of those meetings.”
Jankowski said it was one of the best decisions of his life. The degree, plus the respect he’d already earned on the job, opened the door for his most recent appointment, one celebrated by La Verne mayor Don Kendrick.
“I, and the rest of the City Council, look forward to working with Pete during this transitional period as we look forward to the department’s next chapter,” Kendrick said.
Jankowski said his CAPA professors delivered the perfect mix of scholastic rigor and real-life experience. But his experience reached beyond the academics.
“Getting my degree from La Verne not only led to me qualifying for a department head position but it also gave me a sense of accomplishment,” he said. “There is a network of fellow students and friends I will have for a lifetime.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in public administration, Jankowski went on to pursue a master’s degree in leadership from USC, and graduated in spring 2012.
Jankowki’s future will be a busy one, and he says he is looking forward to the challenge. His days of disaster relief and chasing ambulances are behind him, for now. The urgencies of the foreseeable future, the ones that hit closer to home, require a little different action plan.
“I have a 14-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter,” he said. “My son is on a travel baseball team. My daughter is involved in school performances and music. Between the two, my wife and I have to move the kids place to place, practice to practice. And we love every minute of it.”