Spokane County Fire District 10 has a new fire chief, but Ken Johnson is no stranger to the district. He started his career there as a volunteer firefighter when he was 16.
Because of his age he wasn’t allowed to volunteer at building fires. “At the time you could do wildland fires,” he said.
As a teenager he worked with someone who was a volunteer firefighter and often disappeared when his pager sounded.
“He’d come back with these amazing stories,” he said. “It’s a very active, physical job. You never know what’s going to happen from hour to hour.”
After he earned a degree in risk management from Central Washington University, he went back to District 10 and was the third paid firefighter hired on at the district. After several years he was recruited to join the Cheney Fire Department. Johnson said he was attracted to the department just down the road because he liked the idea of being more involved in the community.
“That kind of suckered me in,” he said. “The guys over there recruited me pretty hard.”
He would stay at the Cheney Fire Department as a lieutenant, battalion chief and interim fire chief for 17 years before returning to District 10. Along the way he earned an executive fire officer certification in executive leadership from the National Fire Academy. The final thing he did before his certification was complete a detailed, 30-page survey.
Doing that survey made him realize that he likes to be involved with his community and spend time with his family, things he thought he couldn’t do if he continued climbing the career ladder, Johnson said. “At the end of it I thought I probably shouldn’t be a chief,” he said.
But one of his instructors in the program told him that his family and community involvement were not incompatible with being a fire chief. In fact, those things were critical for maintaining a proper work and life balance. “He said that’s the chiefs we need in the service,” Johnson said. “He planted a seed.”
That was three years ago, and earlier this year District 10 Fire Chief Nick Scharff told him he was planning to retire and Johnson applied for the position. He knew Scharff from his time working for the district, and some of the same volunteers are still there.
Scharff, who is staying on for a few months to ensure a smooth transition, has been with District 10 for 42 years. He started as a volunteer at age 19 at a time when the department was all-volunteer. In 1996 he was one of two firefighters hired on as paid career firefighters. He was later the first paid deputy chief and then was promoted to assistant chief. He took over as fire chief in 2005.
“It goes by fast,” Scharff said. “I’ve been doing it a long time.”
Scharff said the fire service is changing, and he thought someone younger should take on the challenge. He’s also looking forward to not being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He plans to retire to a small farm he owns that he says has been his source of relaxation in a stressful job.
“I have a long list of items at home to do,” he said.
Johnson started his new position last week and found himself thrown in the soup right away. A storm on his second day on the job led to numerous fires and the next day his district was one of several responding to a complex of fires near Cheney.
“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” he said.
Though his first week was busy, Johnson said he’s found himself settling in without many problems. “I know where all the stations are,” he said. “Memories are flooding back about how we did things and why we did things.”
He said he also has an advantage because he already knows the fire chiefs in neighboring departments and districts.
“I’m very excited to be here,” he said. “I think it’s pretty neat to continue what Nick has built for the last 14 years (as fire chief). There’s a great staff to do that with.”
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