The new head of North Whidbey Fire and Rescue is no stranger to embattled departments.
Tim Lemon came to the island after serving as chief of Chelan Fire and Rescue, where he oversaw a volunteer membership increase of nearly 77 percent. He said his recipe for success is to focus on both the individuals in uniform and those residing within district boundaries.
“We’re in the people business,” Lemon said.
He officially started in his new position Aug. 12, replacing former chief Mark Kirko who stepped down in June. Kirko’s departure occurred after dozens of district volunteers signed an open letter to the editor in the Whidbey News-Times proclaiming mistrust in the current commissioners.
Shortly thereafter, the longtime captain resigned, citing a “toxic” atmosphere.
Lemon said he entered the job with his “eyes wide open.”
“North Whidbey has a really good foundation,” he said.
His first goal is to “getting people realigned (and) focused on the job at hand instead of politics.” He said he wants to improve transparency so everyone, including members of the community, know what they need or want to know.
The timing of his arrival and the job opening was fortuitous. His wife Cathy Lemon moved to Whidbey in November to care for her mother, who is a North Whidbey resident. He’d spent the last 10 years fighting wildland fires and was ready to move back to the “wet” side of the state, he said.
As he settles into his job, he said he’ll begin an evaluation of engine and facility needs. Before he left, Kirko said there were a number of repairs and upgrades that were needed.
The district has approximately 60 active volunteers and 18 paid, part-time firefighters. Lemon said all the districts he’s been a part of have been primarily volunteer-run. It helps to have a some sort of combination of career and volunteers, depending on the needs of the community, he said. And it’s important to remember that the people involved usually have other jobs and responsibilities.
“If you burn out your volunteers, you’ve got nothing,” Lemon said.
His own career in the fire industry began 39 years ago when he signed up as a volunteer in Pierce County. He later went to a department in King County, where he served as a training health and safety officer from 2002 to 2009.
“When you work in a King County fire department, which I did for years, anything else is easy,” Lemon said.
He’s optimistic about the future of North Whidbey’s district. He said he hasn’t had issues with the fire commissioners and he’s been well-received by the volunteers.
“It’s just a matter of getting a fresh breath of air back into the agency,” he said.