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Chief leaves fire district organized, refreshed

When Don Smith retires as chief of Island County Fire District 3 this weekend, he will take with him fond memories of friendships and successes realized.

A veteran firefighter — he joined the California State Firemen’s Association at age 16 — he has worked 40 years as a firefighter, emergency medical technician and administrator.

Many things have changed for the better, Smith said talking about his career as a firefighter.

“My first badge said fireman. Now we have women (firefighters),” he said. When he was certified as an emergency medical technician years ago, he wasn’t allowed to perform CPR. That was for doctors only.

He joined FD3 after retiring as an assistant chief in Coronado, Calif.

Smith said he will miss the relationships he has formed in the district, but plans on keeping in touch with friends.

He compared the fire service to a family where lifetime bonds are formed. So, it will be with many of the people at FD3.

“Our people — volunteers and paid staff — are the salt of the earth. I will miss them,” Smith said in an interview this week.

Since Smith was hired in 1995, the district has grown significantly in terms of its stations, its volunteer ranks, and new firefighting equipment. Almost every piece of firefighting equipment present in the district in 1995 has been replaced without the need to go out for a special bond or tax levy. Fire District 3 also has two new fire stations, one in Freeland and one on Saratoga Road. The district’s Clinton station was recently remodeled as well. All this work was financed with the district’s basic operations levy.

The number of volunteers doubled has also grown in the past eight years, from 60 to 120. Improved training and certification opportunities are now available through the district.

Smith is quick to credit the district’s staff, volunteers and the board of commissioners for the success.

“All these people made it happen. This fire district is an organization filled with talented, dedicated people,” Smith said.

The past eight years have not been without some controversy. Smith pushed throughout his tenure for the hiring of several full-time firefighters, who could provide on-duty, 24-hour fire protection. That proposal never struck a chord of acceptance with the district’s volunteers.

One of the changes the public can’t see are the changes Smith made in the design of the organization. Along with the district’s board of commissioners, Smith developed a blueprint for the district’s future.

Smith said when he moved into the chief’s desk “nothing was written down.” He has spent years writing notebooks of policies and procedures for the district.

Smith’s education prepared him for his career here. In addition to his training in the fire service, he also earned in masters degree in human resources management.

Fire District commissioner Mike Helland credits Smith for the success of of the fire district during the past eight years.

“We are a cutting-edge department and that is largely due to the leadership of Smith,” Helland said.

Though he is hanging up his chief’s hat, Smith will remain in fire service with a fire district consulting firm in Bellevue.

Smith may be leaving, but he is not saying goodbye.

“Who knows I may be back,” he said. “I am in a field to help out on special projects.”

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