BENICIA -- Nicholas Thomas didn't always plan to be a firefighter, but the career he "fell into" has served him well.
In fact, he loves the job so much, he said he once worked 10 years straight for the San Jose Fire Department without taking any sick time.
It's not surprising that "loyalty" and "perseverance" are among his favorite words.
"It's in our nature," said 52-year-old Thomas, who became Benicia's interim chief on Jan. 1, replacing a retiring Steve Vucurevich. "Put a problem in front of us, and we are going to try to get it done."
Thomas worked for San Jose's massive fire department for 29 years before becoming a division chief in Benicia in 2010. His family moved from Hollister to Benicia when he took the job.
"I was wrapping up my 29 years with San Jose, and I felt like I had more to give to the job," he said. "To move to a small organization in a small community was very desirable."
In San Jose, he reached the level of deputy chief with oversight of 34 fire stations and more than 800 employees. In Benicia, he's responsible for two stations with 33 firefighters.
Thomas said he was unexpectedly attracted to the fire service when he was a junior in college.
"I was attending San Jose State University, taking business-management classes," the Richmond native said.
During a career day on the quad, he received information from the Santa Clara County Black Firefighters Association about joining the
Thomas, who is black, said he attended some workshops and tested for the job along with 3,500 applicants. He scored in the 99th percentile. He decided to leave school but would return later to finish his degree.
"The pay and work schedule were attractive," he said. "Also, the friendly, family-like atmosphere at the fire stations I visited ... that's really what got my interest up."
The 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 people and injured 150 others, was "the most challenging fire fight I've been involved in," he said.
"When five engines pull up on a street and you have houses burning on both sides of the street ... there's maybe one hydrant and the fire's moving quickly from house to house ... you're feeling the heat ... we're working on steep hills ... it was very exhausting," said Thomas, one of many Bay Area firefighters who assisted in the emergency.
He described the 2002 Santana Row fire in San Jose, which destroyed part of the shopping center's construction site, as "a huge bonfire" with burning embers that threatened homes nearly a mile downwind.
Thomas said he has seen a lot of changes over the years, including more racial and gender diversity on the fire service.
When he joined San Jose's department in 1981, he was part of the same recruiting class as the city's first female firefighter, Karen Allen.
"It certainly gives the little girls and young women in communities a role model, a person to look up to," Thomas said.
More awareness about the fire service as a career path is slowly leading to more racial diversity, he added.
Thomas is just the second African-American to work for the Benicia Fire Department. The first, Ray Iverson, joined the department in June 2008 and left to join the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District last April.
After a knee injury ended his college football career, Thomas' younger brother, Jeff Thomas, followed him into the fire service, becoming Utah's first black firefighter. He's currently a battalion chief in Salt Lake City.
Thomas' son, Chaz Thomas, also became a firefighter. He works for Rural/Metro Fire Department in Grants Pass, Ore.
"An African-American firefighter might go back to his or her church, his or her neighbors, his or her friends, his or her school ... and talk about his or her career as a firefighter," Thomas said. "So now it gets interest from some of their friends to pursue it."