Q&A: Paul Dean, Hoquiam Fire chief

Paul Dean is the newly appointed fire chief for the Hoquiam Fire Department. He was officially installed in the position on Nov. 26 after being the interim chief for many months. By all accounts Dean is a well-liked and more importatantly, well-respected leader at the department. His leadership style can be described as being laid back and approachable, but at the same time he is intensely professional.

Dean is 64, but describes himself as being a 30-year-old trapped in a 64 year-old’s body. He has been a firefighter for about 38 years, is an Air Force veteran, is married and has a mixed family of six children and nine grandchildren. He originally hails from Wisconsin, but moved to Washington state after he finished his enlistment in the Air Force. His education includes studies in Fire Science and the Washington State Paramedic Certification, along with thousands of hours of training.

Why did you decide to become a firefighter?

Actually, the U.S. Air Force helped me with that. When I enlisted in 1966 and finished boot camp, I was assigned to Grand Forks Air Force Base North Dakota as a “Fire Protection Specialist” and began my on-the-job training in structural fire fighting and crash rescue. I did not grow up with any dreams or aspirations of being a firefighter some day but am thrilled it turned out that way.

Where have you worked as a firefighter?

I worked four years in the U.S. Air Force, including 16 months in Vietnam working crash rescue and retrieval of downed pilots on board the fire department rescue helicopter. Then two years as a civilian firefighter at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma following my discharge from the military. The fire chief in Hoquiam at the time had offered me a position at $450 a month, but I chose McChord AFB for $500 a month. The past 32 years I have been with the Hoquiam Fire Department.

Do you remember your first structure fire, or the first time you went into a burning building? What was it like and what do you remember?

I don’t think that any firefighter can ever forget their very first structure fire or the first time of going into a burning building. My first time with the Hoquiam Fire Department was shortly after being hired. It was on Lincoln Street across the road from the 7-11 store and next door to the Diesel Power and electric building — currently an empty lot.

I remember riding in the fire engine and my mind whirling with thoughts as our dispatch stated there was smoke and flames visible. I was on probation, so I wanted to show that I had what it takes to get the job done. When we arrived, the second story was fully involved. I was assigned to take a hose line up the aerial ladder and fight the fire through the window which had by now large amounts of flames spewing from it. I remember the engineer operating the ladder advancing me to the window and for whatever reason, the ladder with me on it was advanced too far and the next thing I knew, I was briefly in the midst of the flames. I already had water flowing from the nozzle at that time and was not injured, but it was a bit scary for a moment.

How has the fire service changed since you started?

When I began my career in 1980 we ran about 800 fire and ambulance calls per year or an average of two calls per 24 hour shift with 27 personnel working. Our days consisted of our daily vehicle/equipment checks, any maintenance needed, training as required at the time and responding to call which came in. There was a a fair amount of free time which was spent drinking coffee and sharing stories around the kitchen table, watching television, playing cards or working on a personal project. Some days you may go on several calls, while other shifts you may not turn a wheel for the entire 24 hours.

We took turns cooking dinner for everyone each shift and there was always plenty to go around with meat and potatoes being our primary food group.

In 2011 we responded to 3,015 fire and ambulance calls averaging over and calls per 24 hour shift with a total of 24 personnel. and the number of calls for 2012 will be even more. We are busier than ever and doing it with less personnel than we had in 1980. We still have the same daily vehicle and equipment checks to perform and other duties similar to 1980, but there is much less free time these days because of the increased call volumes and mandatory training requirements.

What does it feel like to be the chief now?

That’s really a tough question. I don’t feel any different than when I was the Assistant or even the interim chief. I do know and feel that I have a lot more responsibility as the chief especially since I will be performing both jobs until the city allows the assistant chief’s position to be filled again.

In some ways it is going to be a challenging position to be in, but I am up for the challenges and have the confidence both in myself and my personnel to meet and overcome events or circumstances that present themselves before us.

What do the men on your force mean to you?

The men working under me first of all are like family. They are “brother firefighters” and on any given day, in any given situation anyone of them would go out of their way to help you in any way they could. In the midst of any dangerous event prevalent to our job we have to know that someone “has your back” so there is an earned trust developed among us that you know another firefighter is always there to help you. This holds true whether on the job or in our personal life. I rely on them and know that the citizens of Hoquiam are very fortunate to have such a professional and caring department as we do.

What was the coolest/best thing you have ever done as a person? What was coolest or best day you have had as a firefighter?

The coolest or best thing I have ever done as a person would have happened on Jan. 11, 1997, when I invited Jesus Christ into my life.

The coolest or best day I have ever had as a firefighter would have been a call I responded on as a pParamedic many years ago to a home where a baby was not breathing. While providing Advanced Life Support on the way to the hospital, the baby was resuscitated, and was breathing and crying on arrival.

What was the worst day you have had as a person and what was the worst day you have had as a firefighter?

I would have to respond that there have been not just one, but two worst days in my life as a person. Those would have been the separate days when I stood beside my father and my mother’s hospital bed when they passed away. The reason I am successful today is because of the way they raised me. Even though I made some pretty bad choices in my life early on, they never gave up on me and never stopped believing in me or supporting me through their prayers. The worst day I have ever had as a firefighter would have been one Christmas morning just before I got off shift. It was another call for a baby not breathing and when I arrived on scene, the father was outside waiting for us to arrive clutching his lifeless baby boy in his arms sobbing and asking us to “Please save my baby” I was not able to save his baby and had to go home that Christmas morning to my own family. To this day, that scenario plays through my mind every Christmas morning.

What was the time as a firefighter when you were most scared?

That would have been at a structure fire where another firefighter and I had advanced a charged hose line up the interior stairs of a home on fire and as we advanced the line down the hallway were face to face with a wall of fire and extreme heat. We kept trying to advance further staying low and spraying water to force the heat and flames away from us.

All of a sudden a huge ball of flame was streaking toward us as we lay on the floor with the flames rolling over us. We had to protect ourselves from the heat and flames with the hose stream and backed ourselves out as quickly and safely as we could.

What is your advice for anybody wanting to be a firefighter?

A career as a firefighter these days is a very competitive one and not an easy door to get through. If one is really serious about becoming a firefighter, there are many avenues they could take to prepare themselves.

If there is a volunteer fire department in their area they could apply for a position.

Attendance at a college level working toward a Fire Science Degree is also helpful.

Applying to a technical school that teaches fire fighting fundamentals would also be good.

What makes a good firefighter?

Courage, compassion and commitment; the decision to become a firefighter is one that has to take careful consideration; you must be very dedicated to the choice you make. A firefighter must have a lot of courage and want to risk his or her life to save other people. You must be very unselfish and very devoted. Becoming a firefighter is not an easy task, it takes a lot of long hours studying and training. . Becoming a firefighter is a very competitive and a tough career to choose. The long hours to become a firefighter and the long hours of being a firefighter are sometimes not desired by many. But for the men and women who have become a firefighter, the rewards of saving lives and touching so many lives is more gratifying to them than the long hours they are subjected to. Firefighters take on a lot of physical and psychological exams and go through an extensive criminal and background check just to get accepted into the program. It’s not just a basic job that you simply fill out an application, have an interview and get the job.

A firefighter has to have certain characteristics to be considered for employment. They have to be able to work well with others and take orders without attitude. They need to be very flexible and self motivated. A firefighter needs to be able to handle a lot of stress and stay calm when situations are dangerous and threatening. The most important quality they search for when looking for firefighters is the ability to be empathic toward others and be able to be supportive when things are falling apart.

What is the biggest misconception about being a firefighter?

One of the most common misconceptions is: Our job title is “firefighter” but we spend 80-85 percent of our time other than putting out fires. We are the first responders to car accidents, shootings, stabbings and many other calls that require medical assistance. But don’t get me wrong — putting out fires is what we live for.

We are not heroes as some have called us, we do not wear a big “S” on our chest — we are simply doing what we love to do.

Is it true that when a firefighter gets their picture in the newspaper, they have to buy ice cream for everyone in the station?

Yes, that has been a long standing tradition here at the Hoquiam Fire Department and because of my picture being in the paper following my appointment to fire chief, I will be buying some.

What is your favorite thing to do outside of work?

I would be amiss if I did not say spending time with my wife Paula at our favorite getaway spot at Lake Cushman. But my other big love is traveling with the Medical Outreach organization I am affiliated with a couple times each year to help the poor and impoverished in Third World countries around the world.

If you had a captive audience of at least 20,000 people in Grays Harbor reading your every word in a local newspaper, what would you tell them?

I think that I would first quote the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who said:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter”

I don’t believe that we are here by accident, Each and every one of us have been born for a purpose by our creator. Tomorrow is never promised to us, so we must do what we can with today to make a difference in someone else’s life that will change them in a special way.

I would challenge each and every reader that whenever the opportunity arises to speak something positive into someone’s life or to do something positive for another individual that would cause that person’s attitude and life to be changed forever, that you not take time to think about it, but just do it.