Joe Dawson served as a fire commissioner for the Spokane Valley Fire Department for more than 20 years before he stepped down in late May to focus on his health.
“The doctor told me I had to reduce the stress in my life,” Dawson said. “I have been so relaxed in the last two months.”
Dawson, who turns 77 in a few days, said he misses serving as a commissioner but was spending 20 hours a week or more on the job.
“It was time,” he said. “At my age, it was like having a half-time job.”
He was an educator for 38 years and spent 35 of those years in the West Valley School District. He was a teacher for 13 years, then a principal for 15 years and closed out his career as an administrator.
Dawson said he spent so much time being paid a salary by the citizens that he felt like he had to give something back. While he was still working, he served on the department’s civil service commission for three years, then had to quit when he was named president of the Association of Washington State Middle Level Principals and didn’t have the time.
But a few years later then-Fire Chief Pat Humphries came calling and asked him to run for fire commissioner.
“I just felt like it was a way to give back to the community,” he said.
During his tenure Dawson helped hire three fire chiefs, including the current chief, Bryan Collins.
“I’m proud of all those hires,” he said.
He’s also proud of the hard work the department did to pay their bills and avoid debt.
“We’ve been a cash as you go department,” he said. “We build a new building, we pay cash. We buy a new apparatus, we pay cash.”
He’s also proud of the department raising its Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau rating from a Class 3 to a 2 in its urban areas, which can lower homeowner insurance rates. Fire departments are rated on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best. The rating is based in part on water availability and the number and location of employees. No fire department in Washington has a Class 1 rating.
“That took a long time,” Dawson said. “There are so many pieces. We have 30 water purveyors that have to be involved.”
Dawson said he would often hear from people in other departments asking for his advice because Spokane Valley Fire was respected.
“I’m proud of our department,” he said. “I think it’s one of the top departments in the state.”
Collins said Dawson has a right to be proud of what he’s done with the department, which he saw evolve from a rural fire district to a much more urban fire department.
“Joe was around to see a lot of stuff in the fire department,” he said. “I think he had a lot to be proud of.”
He said Dawson was always well prepared.
“Joe would consume the documents that we sent for every meeting,” he said. “He would ask a lot of questions.”
Dawson never forgot that he was on the board to represent the public, Collins said.
“He’s a steady, reliable guy on the board who never lost sight of why he was there,” he said. “He was always good about taking care of us and the employees, but not at the expense of the public.”
And sometimes the questions Dawson peppered the staff with during meetings weren’t easy ones.
“Joe would ask maybe the hard and uncomfortable questions and I think you need people like that,” Collins said. “That’s accountability. That’s transparency.”
The remaining fire commissioners will interview candidates to replace Dawson at 9 a.m. Aug. 24 and should vote to select a new commissioner during their next meeting on Aug. 27, Collins said.
Now Dawson has time to be truly retired and appears to be enjoying it.
“I do the crossword every day,” he said. “I’m a voracious reader. I read a novel or two a week and the paper.”
He and his wife want to go camping in their motor home and spend time with their four children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“Honestly, I can’t say I have any regrets,” he said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.