Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson was having dinner at the annual Washington State Fire Chiefs Association meeting last week in downtown Spokane when he was surprised to hear his name announced as the 2011 Fire Chief of the Year.
Thompson called the experience “pretty humbling.” Members of his staff knew he had been picked over the other six nominees ahead of time, but Thompson was kept in the dark. Deputy Chief Andy Hail, one of those who signed the nomination letter, had to tell Thompson that he was one of the nominees because Thompson was treating the dinner as just another of the many events he attends while representing the fire department.
“I hadn’t even anticipated bringing my wife to the dinner,” Thompson said. “(Hail) said, ‘Well, it might be a good idea if you asked her.’ ”
The Chief Dan Packer Memorial Fire Chief of the Year Award is the second such award Thompson has earned in his lengthy career. He was also named the Ronny Jack Coleman California Fire Chief of the Year in 2001.
Thompson was quick to include others in his most recent accomplishment. “It is a big honor, but I really have to say everyone on the department is part of this award,” he said. His excellent staff makes him look good, Thompson said. “It’s not just me. Sometimes I just have to stand back and get out of their way.”
Hail, who was hired in 2009 after a 28-year career with the Redmond (Wash.) Fire Department, said he was told by a fire chief he knew that if he ever had a chance to work with Thompson, he should take it. “Coming to work with his team and organization has been one of the best decisions I ever made,” Hail wrote in an email.
The nomination letter signed by all the fire commissioners, both deputy chiefs, administrative staff members and a representative of the firefighters union was complimentary to Thompson. It noted his work on the capital facilities and equipment replacement plan, his role in forming the first countywide ambulance agreement and his willingness to meet regularly with firefighters. “Chief Thompson sets high expectations for himself and leads by example,” the letter reads. “When people talk of one’s word being reflective of one’s integrity and honor, they were describing the personal attributes of Chief Thompson – he is as honest and straightforward as they come.”
Thompson said he enjoys his visits to the fire stations to have lunch and chat with firefighters. He asks what concerns they have or if they have questions about a rumor they’ve heard. “I think it helps me understand sometimes what the underlying issues are,” he said. “It’s extremely helpful to me. I enjoy it.”
Thompson said he is also grateful to have fire commissioners who are supportive of the department. “When they do things they really look at what is good for the community as a whole,” he said.
His arrival as the chief of the department had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. Thompson had retired and moved to the Spokane area to be closer to his widowed father. He was volunteering at Fire District 4 when a recruiter contacted him about the Spokane Valley position. Thompson said he never expected such an opportunity “right in my own backyard” and was pleased to be selected as the new chief in 2005. Now 63, Thompson said he anticipates working a few more years before retiring for good.
He doesn’t want to be one of those chiefs that stay on the job longer than they should and don’t do an effective job, he said. “It will be time for somebody new to come in and take the organization to the next level,” he said. “I feel very fortunate, being here in this department and working with the people I do. It makes my job pretty easy.”