Firefighters standing vigil over body of Lynden fire chief

Lynden Fire station memorial for interim Chief Robert Spinner

A. memorial has been set up at the Lynden Fire station for interim Fire Chief Robert Spinner, who died of an apparent heart attack on Friday.
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A. memorial has been set up at the Lynden Fire station for interim Fire Chief Robert Spinner, who died of an apparent heart attack on Friday.

In a tradition as old as the service, firefighters from Lynden and around Whatcom County are standing vigil over the body of Lynden interim Fire Chief Robert Spinner, who died Friday of an apparent heart attack while on duty.

It is the first line of duty death in the Lynden Fire Department’s 107-year history, according to a statement issued late Sunday, and the second on-duty firefighter death in Whatcom County – the other line of duty firefighter death was in March 1950, when Whatcom County Fire District 7’s Chief Clyde Eaton suffered fatal burns as a barrel of fuel exploded at a fire.

Spinner, 50, was running as part of his daily fitness regimen when he was stricken.

Lynden firefighters administered medical aid to their chief where he collapsed, and resuscitation efforts continued in an ambulance until it reached St. Joseph hospital, where Spinner was pronounced dead.

We stand with our brother until the very end.

Assistant Chief Bill Hewett, Bellingham Fire Department

Spinner will receive a traditional funeral with fire service honors, including a procession of firefighting vehicles from around Washington state and other parts of the nation, said Assistant Chief Bill Hewett of the Bellingham Fire Department. His funeral is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden. It will be open to the public.

Lynden firefighters have been keeping watch over his body around the clock in four-hour shifts since the weekend autopsy, firefighters said Monday. A Lynden Fire command car draped in black cloth is parked outside the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office. Lynden firefighters covered their badges with black bands or tape. Spinner’s firefighting turnout gear was placed at the base of the flagpole outside the downtown Lynden Fire station. Flags at fire stations across Whatcom Country have been lowered to half-staff.

55 Line-of-duty firefighter deaths so far in 2017.

“We stand with our brother until the very end,” Hewett said. “What you’re seeing is that we work as a team, we function as a team. We don’t leave anyone alone.”

In another fire service tradition, Spinner’s body will be escorted at 1 p.m. Tuesday in a procession of Lynden Fire vehicles from the medical examiner’s office on North State Street in Bellingham to Gillies Funeral Home in Lynden. Firefighters from around Whatcom County are expected to the line the route in a final salute. The exact route of the procession was still being finalized Monday afternoon.

He was a strong and competent leader on the fireground.

Assistant Chief Bill Hewett, Bellingham Fire Department

Spinner was a 25-year veteran of the fire service. He joined Lynden Fire as its assistant chief in October 2010 and was named interim chief in April 2017 after Chief Gary Baar retired. In addition to Lynden, Spinner served with Puget Sound Federal Fire Department; Tonopah Valley (Arizona) Fire Department; Rock Hill (South Carolina) Fire Department; Central Whidbey Fire & Rescue; and Rural/Metro Fire in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Chief Spinner touched a lot of lives around the country. His reach is well beyond the city of Lynden,” Hewett said. “He was a strong and competent leader on the fireground. He didn’t mince words. He provided clear direction and firefighters knew what was expected of them.”

Chief Robert Spinner’s turnout gear and white Chief 75 helmet have been placed in a ceremonial position at the base of the flagpole outside Lynden Fire’s downtown Station 75. Alongside is a set of “irons,” firefighting tools that include a flathead ax and a Halligan bar. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Spinner died of natural causes, said Dr. Gary Goldfogel, the Whatcom County medical examiner.

“In coordination with the Chief’s wishes and those of his family, he became an extensive tissue and organ donor as his final gifts to the community he served and loved,” Goldfogel said in an email.

Rest in peace, Rob. We have the watch.

Capt. Cliff Jacobs, Rural/Metro Fire

A total of 69 U.S. firefighters died in the line of duty in 2016, according to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association. Some 42 percent of those deaths were classified as overexertion/stress/medical.

U.S. Fire Administration records show that 55 U.S. firefighters have died on duty so far this year. Firefighter deaths generally have been declining annually since a peak of 113 in 1999, excluding 2001 – when 443 firefighters died, including those killed in the 9/11 terror attacks.

Condolences were being offered at the Lynden Firefighters association page on Facebook.

“He always talked about his family, the adventures they had together and the fun they had. Very rarely did you see him without a smile on his face,” wrote Capt. Cliff Jacobs of Rural/Metro Fire Department in Scottsdale. “Rest in peace, Rob. We have the watch.”

Spinner is survived by his wife Tammy, son Austin, daughter Emma, brother Russell and his mother Shirley. Donations in support of the Spinner family are requested through the Lynden Firefighters Association, 215 4th St. Lynden, WA 98264, or online through the IAFF Local 106 Benevolent Fund at benevolent106.org.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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