Bayside Fire Department has a new chief.
Chris Smith, formerly of Canton, Ohio, succeeds Howard Rue III, who has been in charge of the volunteer department for five years. Rue is retiring and leaving Kodiak this month.
Smith had never set foot in Alaska, much less Kodiak, until he came up for an in-person interview in July.
“It’s always been a bucket-list place. I just saw the opportunity and applied, and it just went from there,” Smith said.
Smith will carry on the work of keeping Bayside shipshape and responding to calls on the northeastern end of the road system. Rue made big strides in increasing Bayside’s firefighting capacity, such as acquiring additional fire engines, but at the end of last year he announced his intent to resign.
“I’m very much looking forward to our new fire chief continuing the work Chief Rue has done over the last five years,” Paul VanDyke, chair of Fire Protection Area No. 1, said at the meeting of the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly when Smith was officially hired.
“As much as we will miss Chief Rue, this is an opportunity to show that we have been trained well by Chief Rue and we will continue his legacy.”
Smith comes with plenty of experience. For six years, Smith was the fire chief in his hometown of Canton Township, a town of about 14,000 about an hour south of Cleveland. He joined the department in 2000 and worked his way up to the top of the ranks. He said he was looking forward to the new landscape and new job.
“I was just at a place in my life to take on a new chapter,” Smith said. “Kodiak is definitely unique. It’s got its challenges, just like anywhere.”
Before he was a firefighter, Smith was an auto mechanic and then a code enforcement officer for Canton Township. He worked with the fire prevention bureau doing inspections. That introduced him to the firefighting world.
It drew him in for the usual reasons: the opportunity to help people, the public service and the unconventional, exciting lifestyle.
“The excitement of the job more or less drew me. Just the unknown, every-day-is-different type of job. It’s not a typical nine-to-five, routine type of career,” Smith said.
He volunteered with the Canton department for a year before completing fire school, passing the entry test and taking a job there.
When he first joined, the department had full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters, but later shifted to all paid positions. The department ran three 24/7 fire stations over 25 square miles, responding to about 2,500 calls a year.
Once, within his first couple years with the department, he helped respond to a bedroom fire. What they didn’t know was that there were stacks of ammunition in the closet. When the fire reached the closet, the ammo started going off all around the firefighters in the room.
“That was an eye-opener for me. That one kind of stuck with me,” Smith said.
He said the firefighting business has changed in two major ways since he started 20 years ago.
For one, the job has gotten more customer-service and communication oriented. The public is more educated than they were in the past. They expect to know what their public safety personnel and tax dollars are up to. And he says firefighters haven’t always been the best at communicating what they do.
“The fire service was never really good at educating the public on what we really do and what goes on behind the scenes,” Smith said.
“They just think you just sit around the firehouse and watch TV until you get a call. And that’s not true. But we did a very poor job of getting that message out there and being in the public eye on a regular basis.”
But a newer generation of fire chiefs has placed more emphasis on visibility, communication and community service. And that means seeing taxpayers more and more like customers.
“Your residents are your customers, and it’s important we treat our residents like our customers because they truly are,” Smith said.
The new focus brings more demands for firefighters to be visible and available, as well as doing more to explain what they do.
“Community service is an extension of what you do. It’s just as important as going out to put out fires or take care of medical calls,” Smith said.
“You need to be visible not only when someone calls for help, but before that.”
That’s one thing that’s changed over Smith’s two-decade career. The other is that the fires themselves have changed.
Oil is in everything now, and oil burns hotter and faster than older materials, like bricks and concrete. And it’s not just building materials either. It’s everything from couch cushions to carpet to drapes.
“It creates a lot of heat, a lot of smoke, and it burns so much more rapidly,” Smith said.
A home full of older fabrics and materials might take 30 minutes to reach what firefighters call “flash over,” or the temperature at which everything in the room will ignite. It now only takes six or seven minutes.
That changes tactics slightly. Firefighters heading to a call often don’t know much about what they are getting into. No one, not even the person who called 911, knows when exactly the fire started.
“As you’re arriving at these fires, you’ve always got this clock in your head thinking, is it safe to go in? Is it safe to go up on it? How long has this been burning before the roof fails?” Smith said.
With newer buildings, that clock ticks faster.
“But the main goal is still to put water on a fire as fast as possible. That’s never going to change,” Smith said.
Bayside is quite a bit smaller than the department Smith came from. He’d run about the same amount of calls in a month in Canton that Bayside will run in a year.
It’s an all-volunteer department too, and Canton was all professional staff.
There are more wood-burning appliances here, too. As winter sets in anywhere, firefighters everywhere start to get a little busier. Wood-burning appliances are important on Kodiak, but they can be dangerous.
Proper installation, spacing, double-walled chimneys and adhering to manufacturing specifications can cut down the risk, Smith said.
But many of the same challenges remain. Finding firefighters is tough, for example, whether they are volunteers or paid.
“The island is manpower challenged, given the geography. But everyone is manpower challenged. We were manpower challenged back on the mainland,” Smith said.
“We have the water. We have the tools. But this job is all about people.”
There are just fewer and fewer people who want to be firefighters nowadays. The pay isn’t great. Continued education is mandatory. It’s hard work and strange hours. Recruiting volunteers isn’t easy either, for many of the same reasons.
That all recruitment is near the top of the priority list for every fire chief in American, Smith included.
“I have some ideas, but I’m still getting my feet wet,” he said.