Incoming Snohomish fire chief begins next month
SNOHOMISH — Snohomish County Fire District No. 4 will be getting a new chief Aug. 1.
Don Waller, who hails from Winthrop, Washington, and currently the deputy fire chief of District 4, will replace Ron Simmons, who retires at the end of July. Waller, who has been deputy chief since September 2019, will oversee 30 full-time firefighters, 25 part-time firefighters and a staff of seven.
The district receives about 4,000 calls per year, roughly 20 percent of which are fire calls, Waller said. There are “a lot of service calls” — anything from ambulance needs and smoke sightings to lost loved ones and car accidents. Car accidents are the single biggest group of service calls made, he said.
“We’re supposed to be prepared for everything,” Waller said.
“Everything” was what he did as a teenager working for the Winthrop fire chief—who also happened to be his dad, Don Sr., he said. The rules were “looser” then, and as long as you were certified, there were no restrictions on high school students helping out, Waller said.
“(We) were a big part of the fire department then,” he said. “Anything a (firefighter) did, we did.”
Some of the teens he worked with in Winthrop are now serving in fire authorities in Everett and King County, he said.
Waller attended Washington State University and worked all four of his college years for the WSU fire department. Under the supervision of a full-time staff member, he and 15 other students provided fire and EMS services for the university, including ambulance and hospital transport, Waller said.
He also received a Masters degree in health policy and administration from WSU.
Although he was a chemistry major as an undergraduate, Waller said he always intended to be a firefighter. Most of his student colleagues majored in political science, he said, although “a great majority” planned to go into firefighting as well.
During summer vacations, Waller worked for the forest service as a “wildland firefighter,” serving on crews in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Utah. After college, Waller worked full-time for the Pullman Fire Department and attended paramedic school in Spokane. He was then hired by the Spokane Fire Department and served there for 19 years.
After working in a larger city, Waller is happy to be in a small town again. He said he enjoys the “small town feel” and this area.
“This town and area and department wraps up my career,” he said.
Waller said his main goals as chief would be to have the most efficient services for citizens and to solve any internal problems in the department.
“I like the creative problem-solving, where we can get a win-win for somebody,” he said.
Regarding a merger with a larger fire district, Waller asks: "What's best for the citizens in our community?" He's been on both sides of merger issues and said, "There's not a single answer." He said you have to develop a plan based on data and focus on services delivered.
"If you do it right, it takes a long time to evaluate and study (the data),” he said.
For now, he wants to step back, see what the fire district wants to accomplish, and how best to do it.
Waller's former colleagues at the Spokane Fire Department speak highly of him.
Ryan Reding, who worked with Waller for nearly 20 years, said, "Your fire department is extremely lucky. He's going to do a great job." Citing Waller's grasp of labor law and experience as a union president, Reding said, "he's got such a wealth of knowledge" in a variety of areas, including health care issues and administration.
Craig Cornelius, a retired battalion chief with Spokane Fire, said Waller has "good people skills," and is "super bright."
"He moved up through all the ranks," Cornelius said.
"Spokane's loss, but a good thing for your department," he said.
Waller is married and has two sons, ages 9 and 12, who attend Snohomish schools. He plans to be here for the long haul, thinking this is an area that is good for his family.
“It’s been really fun for me” to get back to a small town where everybody knows everybody, he said. Waller said he’s always tried to be involved in his community in different ways.
“Chief Simmons has been great to work with. He’s leaving me a fantastic department to continue working with.”
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