When Spokane County Fire District 9 Chief Bob Anderson hung up his uniform last week after 38 years as a firefighter, he made a little history. To the best of his knowledge, his 26 years as chief of District 9 makes him the longest-serving chief ever in Spokane County.
“The beauty of that is I’ve had a chance to see a lot of things, experience changes in the district and the county,” he said.
Anderson, who grew up in Boise, was attracted to firefighting because of the action.
“I suppose for most firefighters initially it’s the thought of the work,” he said. “But you soon learn there’s more to it than that.”
He started as a “tailboard” firefighter in Boise.
“You’re standing outside on the back of the truck,” he said. “Our turnout coats weren’t fireproof. They were made of cotton.”
At the time firefighters routinely wet down their turnout gear before going into a fire to make it more fire resistant. But if they weren’t careful they could get steam burns from the wet fabric.
“It was all about serving folks in their time of need and it still is,” he said.
After the Vietnam War ended and people realized how helpful field medics were, there was a push for fire departments to start providing emergency medical services. Anderson was part of the first paramedic class in Boise.
Anderson arrived at District 9 in 1987. The district had seven stations and had just hired 12 career firefighters to add to its cadre of volunteers. The equipment was outdated and the stations were in poor condition, Anderson said.
He set about creating a plan for the district, which stretches across the northern boundaries of Spokane and Spokane Valley, and selling it to the community. In 1992 the district passed a $3.5 million bond. “It was a lot of money back then,” he said.
With that money the district relocated Stations 91, 92 and 93. “It used to be a converted feed store at Peone and Market,” Anderson said of Station 92. Stations 95 and 96 were remodeled and expanded. Station 94 on Bigelow Gulch Road was built along with a training center. “We got a fair amount of projects done.”
Anderson found himself launched along a second, parallel career path after the Hangman Hills fire in 1987. At the time there was no incident coordination, no countywide fire dispatch and no mutual aid agreements.
Anderson, who had some experience with major incident command in Boise, was nominated by his fellow chiefs to lead the effort toward more coordination among the fire districts. He was named the first chairman of the Inland Empire Fire Chiefs Disaster Planning Committee, a position he gave up only this month when he retired. He led efforts creating mutual aid agreements among the districts and helped create a county incident command system.
He was fire commander for the 1991 firestorm. “We learned about the importance of partnerships,” he said.
Firestorm also made it painfully clear that each district having its own dispatch was confusing and inefficient. A countywide fire dispatch was launched in 1995.
Anderson helped create the Washington State Mobilization Act, which allows resources to be pulled from across the state to fight a large fire. He also served on state and national incident management committees. In 1999 he was asked to train as a regional Type 1 incident commander. He finished the training in 2001, and his first assignment was the Thirtymile fire. He was called in after several firefighters and two campers were overrun by the flames. Four firefighters died. “That was a sad event,” he said. “Again, lots of lessons learned.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, he and his incident management team went to New York. His team helped support search and rescue efforts at the World Trade Center, as well as overseeing stress and grief counseling.
Anderson was later named co-chairman of the Homeland Security National Incident Management Support Team and is one of four national area incident commanders. “I’ve been to fires from Alaska to Florida, from California to Virginia,” he said.
Having such advanced incident management experience is unusual, he said. “I’m kind of an anomaly,” Anderson said. “That’s been rewarding. It’s led to a lot of opportunities to influence change.”
Making it better
It’s the successes in District 9 that Anderson likes to look back on. The district now has nine stations, 50 paid firefighters and 110 volunteer firefighters. Insurance premiums for homeowners have dropped significantly since Anderson arrived.
As Anderson looked back at the things he’s seen and done over the last few decades, he occasionally choked up and paused to regain his composure. He said he considered it an honor to serve the public.
“I always want to make it better,” he said. “I believe you have a debt to pay it forward, to make it better.
“What I’m going to miss are the people. The people are where the work gets done. I’m not going to miss the pager. I’m not going to miss the call at 3 a.m.”
At 58, Anderson is looking forward to retiring to Boise with his wife of 39 years, Pennie. The two have known each other since the second grade and began dating in the eighth grade. “I’ve never dated anyone else,” he said. “I used to play marbles with her in grade school. She was better than I was, just to let you know. But I could beat her at tether ball because she’s short.”His exit is partly due to health problems that have cropped up over the past couple of years, Anderson said, but it’s not the only reason.
“For decades now my wife and I haven’t had a summer to do something for ourselves,” he said. “I’ve been chasing other people’s fires.”
Anderson is looking forward to some fishing and traveling the country on the back roads “when they’re not burning.” His mother-in-law, who lives in Boise, is also ill, he said. “We finally decided it’s time to take time for us,” he said. “It’s a tough thing to do.”
Anderson won’t be leaving the fire service for good yet. He plans to do some training and consulting to keep his hand in.
His departure is bittersweet, Anderson said. “Looking back, it’s been good.”