On January 1, 2012, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue fire chief Tom Fields will end a 36-year career in fire service that’s taken him from Seattle to Camano Island and finally to Whatcom County.
However, Fields might not find himself completely out of the business if the North Whatcom board of fire commissioners decide to hire him back on a consultant basis.
“That’s up to the board, though,” Fields said, with a smile.
Fields came to North Whatcom Fire and Rescue in June of 2005. At that time, the district had yet to be merged and was still two separate fire districts: 13 and 3.
Fields was initially asked to help districts 13 and 3 with financial management as a consultant. After the previous District 13 chief left, Fields applied for and was chosen for the job. Fields said the two districts did not have much trust from the community in the early 2000s. He said the districts at that time were trying to make a profit rather than focusing on service.
“We’re not in the business to make money, we’re in the business to help,” Fields said.
Fields’ first board meeting as district 13 chief was four days after he started. This meeting was well attended, mostly with community members who had issues with the way the district was run. One woman from Birch Bay had a list of problems she had with the district, which Fields took as personal responsibility as the new fire chief.
“We said, ‘We’re going to fix this place,’” Fields said.
Fields made a copy of the Birch Bay woman’s list and kept it as a guide to how the two districts could be improved. As the years passed and the districts merged, Fields said he is proud to say he has been able to cross off every single item on that list.
Since his start at North Whatcom, Fields said district firefighters and staff have worked to ensure the community members can call 911 and expect a firefighter or paramedic to come help them. Fields said North Whatcom crews even provide assistance with the occasional stopped toilet or overflowing washing machine, in addition to actual emergencies.
“When people call 911, they either have a real emergency or they’re out of ideas,” Fields said.
And it was a 911 call on Fields’ part that started him down the path of fire service.
Fields grew up in Montana and later moved to Washington in 1969. Before embarking on his fire service career, Fields was a airline pilot for 17 years at Delta Airlines. The airline job moved him to the Seattle area, but an inner ear issue kept him grounded not long after moving.
A leaf fire Fields was tending got out of control at his home in the Seattle area, forcing him to call the local volunteer fire department. Fields said it took a significant amount of time for the firefighters to respond to the call, but when they did, the responding fire officer scolded Fields for not having a burn permit.
The fire officer suggested that Fields should come to the local fire station and learn about volunteer firefighting. Fields agreed, and became a volunteer firefighter in 1975.
Fields worked as a volunteer firefighter until 1987. After taking formal training as a firefighter, Fields applied for the fire chief position the district now known as South Whatcom Fire Authority in south Bellingham. Fields was one of the only paid employees at District 2 and was the first paid fire chief.
“I grew with that district,” Fields said.
After District 2, Fields accepted a job in 2000 at Camano Island Fire and Rescue, a part-volunteer/part-paid fire department, similar to North Whatcom. Fields said his expertise is in administrative functions and financial management, and Camano Island Fire needed that specific skill set.
“A lot of the experience I have I got from Camano,” Fields said.
With his work at his third and final fire district set to wrap up in two weeks, Field said he will miss the people he worked with. Fields said he attributes a great deal of his success at North Whatcom to surrounding himself with talented, hardworking people.
“They’re an incredible group of people,” Fields said. “They’re responsible for my success as a chief.”
North Whatcom staff will hold a retirement reception for Fields starting at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, December 27, at fire station 12, 4142 Britton Loop Road in Bellingham. Call Jennie Sand at 360/318-9933 to RSVP.