Thirty years ago, Chris Tubbs began his career with the Mercer Island Fire Department. He started as a full-time firefighter in July 1982, four years after first volunteering with the fire department as a high school senior. Tubbs, who was born in Monterey, Calif., became the fire chief in January 2008 after progressing through every rank. He has also served as a FEMA Task Force safety officer.
Tubbs and other local fire chiefs received commendations in February for King County’s survival rate of 50 percent for witnessed cases of ventricular fibrillation cardiac arrest in 2011.
Q: What is a typical day at the fire station like for you?
I start my day with a workout at the gym. I arrive at usually around 7:00 — I’ll come in and check my email for the day, my calendar, verify my appointments, and stuff like that. A typical day is usually a mix of meetings, and different projects we’re working on — administering those projects, whether it’s checking in on the status of a project, or answering a financial question for the finance department. It is a mix of all sorts of things. In some ways, my job is like a conductor. I’ve got all these different instruments I’m responsible for choreographing. It’s keeping the department operating smoothly and making sure we can provide high quality service to the community.
Q: What are some of the challenges of being the fire chief?
The biggest challenge is managing people, and change management. When you implement some sort of change in an organization, especially if it’s cultural, typically that community will resist that change. Helping people navigate through that and feel safe through that change is a significant challenge for any leader.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
When I was a firefighter, I derived my value from helping people and seeing sort of immediately the effect of my intervention, so if it was a fire that we put out, it was being able to go to the homeowner and show them what we were able to preserve — there were things in their home that had value to them, photo albums, or whatever it may be. In this position, where I guess I have found my value is knowing that the work that I’m doing is helping my firefighters achieve that goal. It’s the same value, it’s just a little more removed. My role is to support my organization, the community and the council.
Q: Initially, what inspired you to become a fireman?
I started as a volunteer in 1978 — I was still a senior in high school on Mercer Island. I was a photographer for our school newspaper and for our annual, and I was asked to write a feature article. I was given freedom on what to write. I wrote an article on volunteer firefighters. One of the firefighters was Mark Anderson, who I was on the Boy Scouts with. As a result of doing that story, I was challenged by one of the volunteers to join, [who said] have you ever thought about doing it?
So I put in an application, I went through the testing process, and I was successful. Prior to doing that, my career path had been planned to go into the naval academy. My father was a naval officer. But as soon as I started, I knew what my calling was.
Q: What are the changes you have seen in the fire department over the past 30 years? Specifically, in two areas: providing services, and expectations.
The biggest changes we have seen are in what we would call pre-hospital care. So, how we deliver emergency medical services, the tools that we use, the training that we receive, and certainly, the ability, I think, to have a greater effect on successfully intervening. For example … our 50 percent save rate. While we’ve had that before, the intent of that message from the King County EMC is it’s the new bar. When I started my career, I don’t believe it was 50 percent; I believe it was 30 percent or something like that. As we learn more about pre-hospital care — for example, they study CPR incessantly — one of the biggest changes we saw was the introduction of the defibrillators early into the CPR process, and as they refine this process we see the save rates go up.
On the fire side of things, we have seen the complexity of building material, and how buildings are constructed make our business more challenging.
Now, we see vehicles that are electric, and it introduces a new challenge — it requires new training, different techniques, [brings] new risks. A hybrid generally has a high voltage cable that runs through the vehicle, and when we have accidents, our crews have to know how to locate that and stay away so we don’t have firefighters electrocuted.
The contents inside of a home — materials are much more synthetic in nature, and that has an adverse effect on fighting fire. It makes fires hotter, makes fires burn quicker and produces toxins, and we don’t always know what the long-term effects to our firefighters will be.
The expectations for our services increase. People call the fire department for all sorts of reasons, which is great. The challenge is when you have pressure to either not raise taxes — or, like in the case of our fire department budget last year, losing the fire marshal position (cut in the 2011-2012 budget). Where services are increasing, and where revenues are not and arguably are decreasing, it’s not a sustainable formula.
Q: What do you want Mercer Islanders to know about firefighters?
The level of their dedication and commitment to this community. The stereotype of firefighters is not accurate. And what I mean is, most people think they sit around in the station waiting for calls. Our business is like any other business. We’ve got things we need to do daily to keep this business running. The firefighters are actively engaged in that — whether it’s maintaining equipment or training or administrative responsibilities, our folks have a full day.
As their fire chief, I’m very proud of the men and women in our department, and very proud of their contribution to the quality of life our citizens enjoy.