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Changing of the chiefs: As Snoqualmie Fire Dept. rebooter Bob Rowe eases out, Mark Correira begins new era
On a cold winter morning a few weeks ago, Bob Rowe found himself on a call.
“It was 6:30 a.m.—a broken femur.” A motorized cart had flipped on its driver, injuring the man. “It was freezing, windy, the rain was blowing sideways. I was there, managing that call. That’s what I’m going to miss,” said Rowe. Not the meetings, not the paperwork—but the real responses, out in the real world, that he’ll remember.
Those are what sticks with Rowe, who stepped down February 3 as chief of the department that he built from the ground up 15 years ago.
“That’s taken all the energy I’ve had,” said Rowe.
“I’m ready to step aside and have a new person, with new enthusiasm and energy, take this into the future,” he said. “It’s best for the department to have a breath of fresh air, and new leadership.”
Rowe has been a firefighter for 37 years; his father was a firefighter before him.
“It’s always going to be in my blood,” Rowe said.
The chief’s hat still means a lot in a town the size of Snoqualmie, where you don’t just push paper as the top firefighter.
“The best part of the job is, you get to do everything,” said Mark Correira, who was hired January 15 as Snoqualmie’s next fire chief. “The worst part of the job is—you get to do everything.”
“This is definitely a working chief position,” added Rowe.
The city went through a hiring process this past December that involved department heads, career and volunteer firefighters, who met with candidates and helped winnow the final candidates. A national search that drew 73 applicants ended with a Correira, a Mukilteo resident, getting the nod.
Being a chief is actually half the chief’s job. Correira, like Rowe before him, splits duties as the city’s emergency management department director, planning for and manaaging all the major disasters. That’s a big job.
“This is arguably the busiest EOC (emergency operations center), most active, second to the county, in the county,” said Correira.
“We activate our emergency management department a whole lot more often than other cities,” Rowe said. That’s partly due to the hand Mother Nature has dealt to this flood-prone city in the Cascade foothills. But it’s also because, as a small department, resources are tight and so must be tightly managed.
Correira worked for the Edmonds Fire Department before, during and after it merged to become Snohomish County Fire District 1. He handled operations—“all the firefighters, 12 offices, 20,000 calls a year—that was my responsibility.”
Drawn to administration years ago, Correira liked it. He was drawn to apply for the Snoqualmie job to be able to work within a tighter group to achieve goals—to work in a city again. Here, fire chiefs have a say in planning and making their city safer.
Correira is married, with a son, Noah, 8, and two twin daughters, Elsa and Faith, 12. His wife, Sarah, is a busy volunteer in schools. She’ll likely be looking to build new education relationships locally, as Correira plans to move his family to the Valley this summer. While residence in the city is not required, he wants to make a personal commitment. Plus, with how busy the job can be, “it’s not a bad idea,” said Rowe.
Outside of the job, he’s a utility player for the Stingers, on the Greater Seattle Hockey League team. He grew up skating on frozen lakes in New England with a stick in his hand, a rock for a puck, and started playing again four years ago.
Snoqualmie Fire Chief Mark Correira, with his family, wife Sarah, daughters Elsa and Faith, and son Noah, with the Snoqualmie mayor Matt Larson, being sworn in in January.
A native of Oxford, Mass., Correira’s fire career started early.
“I was walking home from school when I was 13 years old. There was a brush fire on the side of the road. Firefighters asked if I would help put it out.”
He and his friends grabbed backpack-mounted water cans, and jumped right in to douse the burning grass.
“I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing ever!’” Correira volunteered at 18, started training, and was hired full-time at age 23. That was 25 years ago.
When Rowe started as a firefighter, this job was the most dangerous in the country, he said. That’s changed, thanks to better training, better understanding and technology.
But it’s still a hard job, and stress, heart disease and cancer take their toll.
Part of the reason for all that stress is the job’s mentality.
“Firefighters tend to think the worst before they get there, so they’re ready for it,” Rowe said.
On a 24-hour shift, a firefighter called in the night has to go from dead sleep to ready for an emergency. And you can’t be groggy, Rowe said.
“We’re also first to be drawn into people’s worst nightmares,” he said. “You can’t just leave that at work. Some stuff stays with you.”
Firefighters, however, have learned lessons here, ensuring that they talk and debrief after harrowing duty.
“The culture has changed on that issue,” Correira said. “Before, you were weak if you showed emotion or were affected by it. Now, they’re saying it’s OK to be human.”
What’s good about being a firefighter, Rowe said, is that it’s the ultimate public service.
“You…save lives, reduce damage to property, protect the environment. It’s intrinsically rewarding,” he said. “We’re not looking for the accolades. But it sure makes you feel good inside.”
“The goal is to serve people,” said Correira. As city fire chief, he still gets to do that on a one-on-one basis.
“One thing I liked is that I’m not just shuffling papers, making policy or going to meetings,” Correira said. “I get to get out there and do what I love doing.”
Whether it’s tracking a part for a fire engine or driving it out the door to an emergency, he can do it all, and is happy to do so.
“I’m not ready to push up my sleeves and start pushing paper yet,” Correira said.
Correira’s decision echoes Rowe’s own. Part of the reason Rowe took the original Snoqualmie fire chief job.
“I wasn’t ready not to respond to calls anymore,” Rowe said.
Rowe was hired as deputy chief on January 1, 1999, when Snoqualmie had decided to leave Eastside Fire and Rescue and start its own fire department. Rowe had 19 days to do it.
“We started with nothing,” he said. There was just three volunteers, no paid staff, and no fire engine.
Rowe came to Snoqualmie from Burien, where he was a battalion chief.
“I had cut most of my teeth as a lieutenant,” he said. “We had limited staffing. Like this department, at lieutenant wasn’t just a lieutenant—more of a battalion chief. They were in charge of budgeting, the entire EMS program…. a lot more responsibility.
“I was ready for this level,” he added. “I was already doing it.”
Rowe also got a rare chance when he came here.
“I could build a department from ground zero,” he said. “You don’t get that opportunity in this day and age. Everything is established with traditions going back to the 1800s!”
So, he built on his South County knowledge, hiring six firefighters in three weeks. As the city grew, so did the department. Rowe took full control as city fire chief and emergency management director in 2003. The new fire station was built near the Kimball Creek neighborhood in 2005. The old volunteer fire station was demolished in 2007 to make way for the new city hall. But the siren from that station still sounds from the downtown block’s rooftop.
Volunteers had provided Snoqualmie’s fire services until 1993, led by a paid chief and a fire marshal.
Volunteerism remains steady, and the department relies on volunteer firefighters working regular evening shifts, covering the Valley while their neighbors sleep. Highly trained, volunteers “are absolutely the best bang for the buck,” says Rowe, who praises Snoqualmie’s committed core group.
However, the days of an alarm summoning a legion of part-timers to the fire hall in a crisis are a memory.
“You can’t just walk out of your business, lock the door and go help somebody anymore,” said Correira. “That culture is over…. The community now needs to ensure that when they call 911, someone is going to show up.”
Much of that is down to new training requirements.
“When I became a volunteer firefighter, it was ‘here’s your bunker pants and helmet, here’s where you stand when the alarm goes off,” Rowe said. “Now, it’s a full three-and-a-half-month academy” just to fight fires. “The level of knowledge and competence—it’s a huge time commitment.”
Snoqualmie’s fire department has grown, thanks to last year’s levy lid lift and a new basic life support transport fee assessed for ambulance rides. The job of a firefighter will remain secure, even as, in the years ahead, as more fire service jobs open up in the industry, possibly including Rowe’s own.
“Titles don’t mean that much to me,” says Rowe, whose current one is a little fuzzy. He’s performing, more or less, the same role that retired Battalion Chief Todd Reynolds did—overseeing schedules and the training program. He’s also now a source of wisdom for the new boss. But Rowe is being very careful to ensure that he doesn’t cast too big a shadow, even while his presence makes for an easy transition.
“I didn’t want to handcuff the new fire chief of what my vision is,” Rowe said. “He needs to be going forward.”
So, even Rowe’s battalion chief role may disappear when he leaves this spring.
Correira jokes that now Rowe gets to deal with “all the good stuff.
“Any problems,” he thumbs his own chest.
Rowe can address past policies, but if a firefighter asks him about what’s ahead, it’s Correira’s territory—“You have to go next door,” explains the outgoing chief.
In 2013, Snoqualmie logged more than 1,140 calls. It was its busiest year yet. Call volumes have seen upward shifts in the last few years, even as growth in the city has stabilized.
The city’s now much more youthful demographic has also changed the game for firefighters. It’s more about preventing accidents involving children, then responding to elderly falls or fires.
“We used to have fires back in the day,” Rowe said—three or four big, bad structure fires a month. As building codes and safety changed, America stopped burning. Both chiefs experienced a culture change, some 15 years ago, when firefighters began to be trained in the art of reading smoke, of understanding fire behavior by sight. Fires had become rare enough that firefighters needed books and classes to make up for on-the-job experience.
“The generation now, the people with the experience, who have been through those big battles, are retiring,” Rowe said. “The ones stepping up don’t have that much battle experience with fires. They’re trying their best to get the old-timers to download that experience. (But) you can’t only talk about it. You have to experience it.”
Tech is also changing. Thirty years ago, the new technology was in-home smoke detectors. Today, it’s residential sprinklers, which get people out while slowing the speed of a structure fire.
Correira sees the role of firefighters changing, too, as they become a more integral part of the health care system. Their stations and their mobile response are ways to keep people out of emergency rooms through education, prevention and response.
Looking ahead, fire departments will be more efficient. That means partnering with other communities.
“I believe the city is going to retain its fire department,” said Correira. “We’re providing services to the area. If we can become a part of that leadership in the Valley, I’m certainly up for it, and excited.”