As a boy, Tony Nielsen was always listening for his heroes.
“I would hear a siren and jump on my bike and take off and go wherever the firefighters were,” he said.
And his passion never abated. Nielsen was recently named chief of Spokane County Fire District 8.
Growing up in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, Nielson knew by age 3 that he wanted to be a firefighter.
When he was 14, he joined the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Explorer program because it was as close as he could get to being a firefighter. At 16, he was invited to join the Explorer program in District 8. “I still have the letter I got from the chief,” he said.
He became a volunteer firefighter in District 8 when he turned 18, then became a resident firefighter with the district. He worked as an emergency medical technician for Arrow Ambulance in Coeur d’Alene and Spokane Ambulance. He got his firefighter training in Spokane Community College’s fire science program and paramedic training program.
In 1991 he was offered a job with the Port Angeles, Wash., fire department. “I wanted to be a firefighter and paramedic so bad,” he said. “It was offered and I jumped on it.”
Firefighting looks glamorous and exciting on television; Nielsen quickly learned that it wasn’t reality. “It’s certainly not what it is on television, but it is rewarding,” he said.
He returned to District 8 as the division chief of training in 2003. “It was a great opportunity to come back home,” he said.
Nielsen was appointed acting chief of the district in March after Chief Bill Walkup announced he would retire. He was sworn in as the permanent chief on July 15.
In his office is a 1973 “Emergency!” lunch box and matching thermos. He watched the TV show faithfully as a child. The lunch box isn’t the one Nielsen had as a boy, but it’s as close as he can get. “My little brother ruined mine, so I got it on eBay,” he said. “He took a magic marker to it and I thought I needed a new one.”
Nielsen has been settling into his role at the district. His historical knowledge of the area and the issues has helped, he said.
“I think it was a pretty smooth transition,” he said. “I think Chief Walkup was very helpful in transitioning things to me.”
Nielsen said the district’s fire commissioners didn’t do a search when Walkup announced his retirement. “I guess they never really asked anyone else if they were interested,” he said. “I was the guy who had been around the longest. Having that background and history, I think, was important to the board.”
He considers himself blessed to have the position. “It’s a great organization,” he said. “It’s a fun place to work and we’ve got great people.”