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CAL FIRE CIO: ‘Help Our Customers Solve Their Problem’

An image of Chris Martinez, CIO of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, next to a quote that reads: "My role is really finding a way to get to the 'yes.' I would sum that up very simply because a lot of the challenges that we have are always met with a lot of 'nos' or how we can't do things."
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Chris Martinez is chief information officer at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), a role he has had since August 2023.

A longtime technologist, Martinez has decades of experience in tech across the public and private sectors. His previous positions span IT administrator, engineering and management roles, and he was most recently a chief operations manager in state government.

Industry Insider — California: As CIO at your organization, how do you describe your role? How have your role and responsibilities changed in recent years in terms of their intersection with IT and innovation?

Martinez: My role is really finding a way to get to the “yes.” I would sum that up very simply because a lot of the challenges that we have are always met with a lot of “nos” or how we can’t do things. And so, finding a way to “yes.” And being able to anticipate, I think, is important. I think part of that anticipation expected of me will help me get to the “yes.” As far as the role and how has it changed? I believe it’s still stayed the same. We, as part of the Technology division, we continue to prioritize our technology requests to achieve the mission and vision. And that’s very important, especially now that CAL FIRE is going through an update to the 2019 strategic plan, the soon-to-be 2024 strategic plan.

IICA: Does your organization have a strategic plan, and may we hyperlink to it? How big a role do you personally play in writing that strategic plan?

Martinez: The original one was from 2019, and it’s being refreshed for the 2024 year. I believe we continue to be in the stages of refining, I believe it’s the goals and the objectives. And I believe also, the characteristics that we as a CAL FIRE family, as team members, will use to be able to measure that we’re actually meeting that mission and vision, and we’re hitting the goals. My peers and other leaders and executives, we have held multiple working group sessions, where we work together in breakout rooms and multiple sessions, where we identify what the current version is. We talk about where that future, where that goal and that direction is. And then we, as a group, we brainstorm, we put together ideas, making sure that everyone is included and it’s inclusive of everyone. It’s actually great in that, while we are all very busy, we are all making time to provide our input from various corners of the CAL FIRE department into the new strategic plan. I think there’s going be a lot of great challenges that are going to take CAL FIRE to the next level with the new updated strategic plan.

Editor’s note: Find the CAL FIRE 2024 strategic plan here.

IICA: What big initiatives or projects are coming up? What sorts of developing opportunities and RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Martinez: For big initiatives and projects, from my understanding, we want to make sure that we’re delivering the best, and I’m just speaking on behalf of the Technology division, of course. We want to make sure that we’re providing the very best of technology to the business so that they can benefit from this. We, Technology, believe that we do not exist for the purposes of just existing for technology. We bring the technology to our consumers, that would be our partners and the customers here within CAL FIRE. And we work with them very closely to understand what works for them, trying to understand what their problems are, and then to also be better stewards of the technology and trying to match that up with the needs of the department. Not because there’s this new shiny thing, but rather understanding where our fellow co-workers and team members are having the most heartache, where we can apply automation, where we can apply technology to make their work better and to have that great user experience. Because technology can make that happen. And we choose to continue to push that and make sure that the experience is a great experience for our fellow coworkers. As far as any RFPs, I’m not aware of any that come to mind. As far as what RFPs might be available out there, there isn’t anything that we wouldn’t consider. I think it’s just a matter of what our customers, what our program managers need. And then we would actually go out and go look for it.

IICA: In your opinion, what should local government be doing more of in technology?

Martinez: As we develop our department strategic plan, we also, in the Technology division, are refreshing our technology road map. One of the things that we had today, in a session, was to go over a part three of goals. Over three sessions, we had various breakout groups to understand, okay, if X-Y-Z is our goal, how do we measure that? We went down to making sure that things are smart goals and that we should be able to measure it. And then, regularly being able to evaluate the skill sets within our teams to make sure that we are in the best place possible to support the department mission. In other areas if we needed to, as part of local government and doing more in technology, the things that I needed to be able to do is not only ask my leaders to be able to look at the skill sets, but I also need to be willing to look at the skill sets of the management team who report to me. Meaning, spend time looking at job duty statements. I was actually just doing that before this meeting. I was evaluating job duty statements for 2024, making sure that it is still modern in a way where it supports the mission and vision of the division. And then that, of course, further supports the actual strategic plan of CAL FIRE. And then, hand-in-hand as part of updating job duty statements, it’s also investing in employees through training. I am a firm believer in that, while we have new employees who bring existing skill sets, and while we have existing employees who learn on their own, I think we as responsible custodians of the state, we should also invest in our employees. Meaning, taking the time to work with the employees, and doing that regularly and communicating with them to understand where there might be a need for training or where there might be the gaps or shortfalls in what we need them to know versus what they currently know now. And then I think, last but not least, we do serve the customer. It is absolutely important, and I’m a firm believer in this, to be able to help our customers solve their problem. Meaning, if they need Technology’s help, we have customers are so used to, “Hey, technology, fix this problem.” “Let me understand what your problem is,” would be my response. And then depending on what their challenge is, is there a way that we could maybe empower them to possibly solve their own problems? For example, Microsoft Power Platform, where we are heavy users, and text documents and data within cells. What if we found a way to maybe shave 5 percent of manual work through Power BI or Power Platform? I think that over time, multiplied by multiple people across the enterprise, we can shave time that would normally be spent doing manual work, if we spent the time to be able to help the customers understand and hopefully solve their own problems.

IICA: You mentioned refreshing the technology road map. Do you anticipate that will be released in conjunction with the strategic plan, on roughly the same timeline?

Martinez: That’ll actually be done by the end of [2023]. We do it annually and I’ve been responsible for it ever since I’ve been here. And this is just a normal course of action that happens throughout the calendar year. We’ve spent about three months cleaning it up, making it current, refreshing it, working with all team members with the Technology division so that we can capture everyone. It should be released either at the end of this month [December] or at the beginning of the year. That is an internal document, so we keep that internal, whereas the strategic plan for the department is a public document.

IICA: How do you define “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process, and how will you know when it’s finished?

Martinez: Digital transformation, I think it’s really a point in time. And what I mean by that is, transformation that we go through digitally will take us from where we’re at now over to the next level. And now, there’s this transformation where we’re moving some of this programming into the hands of our end users, for example, through the power platform. I look at that as a point in time and whatever the current tools are, it’s, technology’s a good problem to have, to understand what product or what solution is in the marketplace, and then digitally transform the current state of being into that new state of being. For example, maybe prior to the pandemic, not many people met virtually as you and I are doing. And so there was a decision where, is it going to be Microsoft Teams, is it going to be Zoom, is it going to be Webex? We ended up finding out that the state standardized on a few things, and I found that more commonly used around the departments [is] Microsoft Teams. So being able to digitally transform from not meeting in person to virtual, and then digitally transforming the environment through, for example, digital signatures, where there was a time where, hey, you needed a wet signature. I think it was really the pandemic that helped push a lot of what the state wanted to do, but because of the timing, it was definitely not the perfect timing, but we were somewhat forced into it in order to keep business going for the state of California. While I don’t like what the pandemic did to anyone, it was definitely that wave that helped push that digital transformation to where we are now. We’ve been able to successfully show that the state and the government can continue business digitally, where we don’t have to meet in person all the time. I continue to work with my leadership and with the people that I’m responsible for [on] what that balance is, between working in the office and working away from the office. We, CAL FIRE, are an all-hazards department and we can never be 100 percent virtual because we are so closely partnered with our folks on the ground who fight fires and who provide support and work on hazards. Being virtual for someone who needs us there in person, it’s probably never going to happen. But I am confident that we are going to be able to find a balance. As far as the progress that we have, you are right, it’s never finished. Going back to the smart goals, once we have that, taking a baseline or snapping the string, finding out where we’re at, measuring and shooting for, for example, a humble 5 percent improvement in whatever area that might be. A year from now, taking that measurement or snapping the chalk line again, were we able to achieve, for example, that 5 percent gain or that 5 percent efficiency? So, yes, never finished. Always constantly measuring and evaluating where we’re at and making improvements along the way, being very agile.

IICA: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Martinez: The estimated IT budget, I’m not aware of, though I do see the numbers and I wouldn’t want to misquote by just giving a number out there. As far as employees, I believe we are under 180.

IICA: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Martinez: For LinkedIn, CAL FIRE does have an official LinkedIn page. And then as far as what they would need to do to best educate themselves before meeting with [me], there’s a lot of content online at And I think that part of whatever research that someone is going to do, they can do on that website. As far as reaching out, we definitely have teams here who are responsible for receiving inquiries from the public.

IICA: In your tenure in this position or in another role, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Martinez: I’m very surprised that every time I accept a new role, there’s always a new project or a new maintenance and operations effort to help take things to the next level. For example, I would look back at when we were making changes to a website, to where more of our public constituents can access data, when I was at another department. That was something that made me very proud, because usually if you’re looking for information on a public resource and you can’t find it, we as taxpayers can feel somewhat disappointed that that information isn’t there and that you might have to pick up the [phone]. Back then, that was huge. Now, it’s being able to help our firefighters be able to be more safe, and to be able to protect the people that they’re out there protecting during a fire, or protecting property. Having that technology to make sure that it works for them — for example, the tracking of a vehicle to make sure that we’re aware of where everyone’s at, and the criticality of making sure that we know our firefighters themselves are safe — that’s huge. I could imagine a day where there wasn’t that kind of technology and someone had to track them based on using the radio and then maybe paper and pen. And now we’re getting to this part where a lot of that information is now automated, and automated tracking of vehicles. So, I’m very, very proud of what we’ve done. We continue to build on that. There’s some great ideas that, in working with our research development and innovation team here within the Technology division, they bring up and we talk about on a regular basis that almost make science fiction seem like it’s really at the door of CAL FIRE. So, I’m very excited about the things that we’re doing here; and depending on the feedback that we get from our actual customers who will be using it, I’m really excited to see how much of what we talked about actually turned into a reality.

IICA: What has surprised you most this year in government technology?

Martinez: I think one of the things that we’ve been able to do, and this was a result of the pandemic, is teleworking and being able to work with customers at various locations and then various time zones. That’s been in the private sector for decades. And now we’ve somehow, in the state, been able to embrace that and retool our processes to allow our workforce to be able to use this technology and still not skip a beat. I’m looking forward to, hopefully, vendors dropping their prices, but I don’t know where that might be. That’s always wishful thinking.

IICA: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Martinez: What I read really just depends on what I’m asked to work on right now. A lot of the things that I’m reading are about fire technology, suppression technology. There are ideas about being able to lift or carry heavy loads, and so what ideas or what type of equipment we use now to do that, and how we as technology through our Research Development and Innovation team might be able to augment that and make things better for our firefighters.

Editor’s note: Learn more about Research Development and Innovation here.

IICA: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Martinez: I live, breathe and eat CAL FIRE, and so I have a cot — I was going to say, I sleep right here behind my desk. I work at home. I think the peace of being able to focus on work and then focus on something that’s not work. And I find a lot of enjoyment just doing things around the house.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.