Civic Agenda: New Bellingham fire chief committed to safe, prepared community

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 11, 2014 

Public safety is a top priority for the city of Bellingham, and I'd like to use this opportunity to introduce myself and describe my role in supporting the health and safety of our community.

I was appointed fire chief in January 2014, after serving as assistant fire chief for a year. I'm thankful to work with so many capable, committed people, within my department, throughout city government and beyond.

Prior to Bellingham, I worked for the city of Redmond, Wash., Fire Department, serving as lieutenant, captain, battalion chief and deputy chief of emergency medical services. I also hold a master's degree in aerospace engineering, an associate of arts in fire administration and command, and completed the National Fire Academy's executive fire officer program.

Here are my thoughts on questions I am commonly asked.

What are the Bellingham fire fhief's responsibilities?

I lead the Bellingham Fire Department, supervising 150 employees, including 120 firefighters and paramedics. We staff six city fire stations and paramedic units, serve over 80,000 people in about 25 square miles, and have a 2014 budget of $23 million. Last year, we responded to almost 15,000 calls for service.

Our mission is to protect lives and property from the adverse effects of fire, medical emergencies and exposure to hazardous conditions created by man or nature. To meet this mission we provide firefighting, paramedic and disaster response, and many other services to prevent and prepare for fires, disasters and medical emergencies.

The fire department operates in partnership with all of city government, working together to address needs citywide. For example, the fire department responds regularly to incidents involving the police department, providing services and back up to each other. We work closely with engineers, planners and others, to make sure as the city grows and develops, new areas have adequate public safety services and response times. I lead the city's emergency management efforts, involving the whole city in training, preparing for and responding to disasters. These relationships are synergistic, and I'm proud to be part of a great team leading our community into the future.

As fire chief for Bellingham fire, I also serve as fire chief for Whatcom County Fire District 8 through a contract to provide administrative services to the district. In that capacity I work cooperatively with the District 8 fire commissioners and department members to provide fire and emergency medical services to the Marietta area and Lummi Nation.

I also represent the fire service to our community, including regularly engaging individuals and groups locally and regionally, and by my involvement nationally. I find out what is taking place nationally as fire, paramedic and disaster services change, and bring home new ideas and expertise for our community.

How did you get from aerospace engineering to fire service?

I was an aerospace engineer working for a large, well-known airplane manufacturer. My wife and I moved to the Seattle area from Florida, and I began volunteering for a small fire district as a way to meet people and connect with our community. I discovered the fire service is about much more than putting water on fires, requiring leadership and knowledge I already had as well as more I needed to learn. The rewards of volunteering in this field were significant and I found it very satisfying.

With the full support of my then-employer, I decided to make it my full-time career. Fire, paramedic and disaster response services are very complex and I use many of my engineering skills to perform my job. This field has provided me with a very satisfying career, with lots of room to grow and learn and many ways to contribute, and has provided lasting friendships and strong relationships with many people.

How has the fire service changed during your career?

Fiscal constraints: We are operating under more fiscal constraints and with greater public scrutiny. Historically the fire service relied on good will to demonstrate effectiveness. Today, we demonstrate fiscal responsibility and accountability by collecting and reporting information about what we do and how we are meeting our mission. This is a healthy change, and I look forward to sharing my department's successes with our community.

Financial constraints also require us to work more cooperatively with our neighbors, another healthy change in fire culture. We are seeing more agency consolidation and collaboration in training, disaster preparedness and response. Some agencies routinely share staff and equipment. For example, when Redmond responds to a large fire, the cities of Bellevue and Kirkland regularly get called out as well, providing additional equipment - ladder trucks, aid cars, etc. - and personnel.

Highly qualified personnel: We are seeing a higher level of education and experience in our leadership, officers and entry-level personnel. It has become a very competitive field of highly qualified, well-educated professionals.

Medical services: Our health care system is changing, and along with that we need to evaluate how we provide emergency medical services and paramedic services, by finding better ways to meet community medical needs in addition to a 9-1-1 call and transport to the hospital. These changes will continue to develop in the years ahead.

What issues is your department facing in the next five years?

Regional cooperation: We recently began providing administrative services to Whatcom Fire District 8, and will be looking for other partnerships to gain efficiency and effectiveness through shared operations, equipment and personnel.

Emergency Medical Service system changes: Whatcom County recently took over administration of advance life support paramedic services. We continue to work with county officials to make sure this system continues to run smoothly and cooperatively, delivering the high level of service our community expects.

Planned growth: There is excitement around developing the downtown waterfront, and we are steadily moving in to the urban growth areas. We are working closely with planning, public works, police and others during these planning phases, to make sure we can provide appropriate levels of public safety response to those areas as they develop.

Retirement planning: A key internal issue is retirements and planning for those vacancies. We have experienced many retirements already, and will continue to during the next 5-10 years. We are looking at ways to maintain our base of experience, and developing our staff members to succeed in leadership roles.

How are you and your family enjoying Bellingham?

We enjoy the strong sense of community in Bellingham. People here live, work, shop and play in Bellingham, not as often traveling between four or five adjacent cities as we did in Redmond. My family includes my wife Sharon, and our children Andy (9th grade) and Molly (kindergarten). Everyone is welcoming and we have a strong sense of belonging even in our short time here. It has been wonderful to discover local restaurants, shops and the city's overall character. We also enjoy the trails and we all ski, snowboard and backpack so we appreciate the proximity to the mountains.

We love our new home, and I am enjoying good relationships in the department and throughout the city. Things are really going in the right direction and I'm excited about the challenges and opportunities here. It's daunting but fun!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Newbold can be reached at the Bellingham Fire Department, 360-778-8400 or bdnewbold@cob.org. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about City of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org.

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