Self-promotion and the quest for individual awards are not high on the priority list for Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson.
The native of Wichita, Kan., would rather drive to a fire station and chat with firefighters over a sandwich than be under the spotlight at a banquet where his name is among the list of honorees.
Still, there was Thompson – brought on to direct the Spokane Valley Fire Department in 2006 – earning the applause of peers at the annual Washington State Fire Chiefs Association recognition dinner on May 26 for being named the state’s top fire chief. The Chief Dan Packer Memorial Fire Chief of the Year award is presented each year to the leader who contributes to his or her respecitve department and community in an exemplary way.
“It’s just a tremendous honor,” Thompson said. “I really see it as a tribute to the entire department. Everyone here deserves this award. They’re the ones who do all the work.”
Monte Nesbitt, chairman of the Spokane Valley Fire Board of Commissioners, said Thompson has been a catalyst for a series of positive developments since he was hired five years ago to replace Mark Grover.
“He’s exceeded all our expectations,” Nesbitt said. “If we have an issue or concern, Mike has already started to correct it.”
Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson was named Fire Chief of the Year by the Washington State Fire Chiefs Association last month. The award is named in honor of Dan Packer, a fire chief who lost his life in 2008 fighting a fire in Northern California. Photo by: Craig Howard
From leading the effort for department accreditation with the Centers for Public Safety Excellence to reducing the incident response time to an agency-wide standard of five minutes, Nesbitt said Thompson has earned a reputation as an organized, efficient and even-keeled leader.
“Mike doesn’t get upset when someone disagrees with him,” Nesbitt said. “Instead of getting confrontational, he stays calm and works through it.”
Randy Olson, SVFD Emergency Medical Services battalion chief, said Thompson has earned the respect of employees throughout the department for his organized, accessible approach.
“With Mike leading it, I think our organization is as strong and cohesive as it’s ever been,” Olson said. “Everyone in the department knows they can talk to him. He’s a very effective leader.”
Along with accreditation, Olson and others point to Thompson’s role in a number of department initiatives including the finalization of a new ambulance contract, emphasis on community CPR training, an educational leadership program and new components like a 21-member water rescue crew launched last year and implementation of C.A.R.E.S. – Community Assistance RESponse Team – a program started by the Spokane Fire Department that refers at-risk residents to resources through a collaboration with the Social Work program at Eastern Washington University.
“Mike sets goals and standards and works hard to achieve them,” said Bill Clifford, SVFD spokesman. “The work he’s doing here is benefiting the community.”
Thompson was a 22-year-old Marine back in 1970 when he first considered a career as a firefighter. He worked with the on-base department during his final three months as a Marine in North Carolina before moving with his wife and son to San Diego.
In California, Thompson found the search for employment a challenge. He initially worked at a small airfield, refueling planes before applying for a job with the local fire department. Of nearly 400 recruits, Thompson wound up first on the list and became a frontline firefighter in San Diego County.
“I liked the team environment and just being challenged,” Thompson recalled.
Later, Thompson completed his Emergency Medical Technician training and spent more time responding to incidents as part of an ambulance crew. Within six years, he had earned lieutenant status; in another two years, he was named a captain.
While serving as a fire marshal in San Diego, Thompson went back to school, earning his associates and bachelor’s degrees. Later, during a tenure as deputy chief in Salinas, Calif., he would add a master’s degree in business.
While Thompson may have moved into the managerial side of his field in Salinas, it didn’t mean he was not involved in battling blazes.
“I liked the administrative side of things, but I would still respond to calls,” he said.
Thompson would move on to become fire chief in Grand Junction, Colo. before returning to California to serve in the same role in Culver City. Later, he was hired to serve as Culver City’s chief administrative officer, overseeing a municipal staff of 750 and a budget of over $100 million.
“It was a great experience,” Thompson said. “It taught me a lot about how cities work.”
Thompson left Culver City in 2003 and moved with his wife to Spokane to live near his widowed father. While retirement was on his agenda, Thompson stepped forward as a candidate for Spokane Valley fire chief less than two years later. In the meantime, he volunteered as a firefighter with Fire District 4.
“I thought it would be a good way to give back to the community,” Thompson said of his volunteer stint.
Thompson, 63, says he has planted roots in the Inland Northwest and plans to remain after retirement.
“This is home now,” he said.
While peers, co-workers and friends have paid homage to Thompson over the past few weeks, he said a different kind of tribute from his own department several years ago still holds special meaning.
After Thompson’s son, Mike, Jr., lost his life in a motorcycle accident four years ago in California, representatives from Valley Fire’s pipe and drum band showed up without notice at the funeral service. Later, employees pulled together a fund for Mike Jr.’s wife and kids.
“It was a difficult time,” Thompson said. “The support from the department got me through it. They were a tremendous help.”