Chief John Sinclair is the IAFC president and chairman of the board and chief of Kittitas Valley (Wash.) Fire and Rescue, a combination department with 10 stations serving a population of 38 thousand. Chief Sinclair has been in the fire and emergency service for 39 years and a member of the IAFC for 25 years.
IAFC: Who or what inspired you to join the fire and emergency service?
Sinclair: It was serendipity. I was in college with the intention of going pre-med and was also a volunteer firefighter for my local department. I took my EMT course to help out the local fire department. I met Dorothy Purser, who ran the paramedic program; she and Fire Chief Ed West both encouraged me to go to paramedic school.
IAFC: Why did you pursue a leadership position? Who or what inspired you to pursue that path?
Sinclair: Chief John Murphy was the EMS chief for Anacortes Fire Department. He hired me in 1982 as a firefighter/paramedic. Then he asked me to help him start a paramedic program at Lakewood Fire Department in 1984 as one of the first six FF/PMs in a very traditional fire department. He started me on the leadership path. Then in 1991, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Jim Page at an EMS Conference. He encouraged me to work toward being a chief officer and making a bigger difference.
IAFC: What contribution are you proudest of as a leader in the fire and emergency service?
Sinclair: In 2008, when Greg Cade was the U.S. fire administrator, I was able to help rewrite the authorizing language for USFA. In that, I wrote language that mandated EMS as a primary mission of USFA and the National Fire Academy. Up until that point, there were several times when USFA wanted to work on EMS issues but had no real authorization to do so.
IAFC: What’s your passion?
Sinclair: My passion is building. Not in the traditional sense, although we did just finish building a new headquarters fire station, and that was sweet. I mean building people and systems. The two main jobs of a fire chief are to build a culture that keeps the firefighters as safe as they can be in a dangerous profession and to think about building an organization that will serve the community for years after they have left. You do both through people. Making sure you hire the right people and then ensuring they are nourished with the right culture.
IAFC: What one thing about you would surprise others if they knew it?
Sinclair: No surprises. I’m an open book.
IAFC: What issues keep you up at night?
Sinclair: In my job as a fire chief, I worry about my people whenever they go on a call. I love each of them, albeit some a bit more than others. But I know their frontline officers are well trained and they’ll keep them safe. However, it is the unknowable, the Black Swan Event, that worries me. Something we didn’t see coming. I think we’re very vulnerable to attack and continue to live under an existential threat. If we are attacked, can we recognize it fast enough and respond appropriately? For example, a cyber-attack that takes out the power grid during a cold snap. We’re so intent on doing the day-to-day work; it’s hard to plan for the cornucopia of possible attack vectors.
IAFC: What challenges have you faced and how did you meet them? Has your department implemented a creative way to address a need or challenge?
Sinclair: I’ve been involved in two successful mergers of fire departments/districts. In the first one, I was the EMS chief and tasked with building an EMS system for four different fire districts that eventually became one. In the second one, I was the fire chief of a fire district that had a city fire department merge into it. We had to educate the public and the elected officials as well as the firefighters, officers and administrative staff. Subsequently, we have passed a capital bond at 70% in a fiscally conservative community and built a new headquarters. We did all of the above by honest communications, patience and tenacity.
IAFC: How has the fire service changed throughout the course of your career?
Sinclair: I’m happy to say we’ve changed a great deal, yet we’ve hung on to our important traditions of serving the public. When I first joined, the SCBAs were carried in special boxes on the engines. They were only to be used in case of a citizen or firefighter rescue. I went into a lot of burning buildings without an airpack on. Thankfully, we have learned and evolved, and no firefighter would consider entering a smoke-filled structure without an airpack. We have learned a great deal over the past 40 years about what kills firefighter’s and are working toward minimizing the health risks to the profession. We’re also now exploring the psychological and behavioral effects of the job and finding better ways to help our people be more resilient. We have taken on new missions; we’re now part of a community response to terror events and active-shooter incidents.
IAFC: When or where have you seen progress and positive changes in the profession?
Sinclair: Many positive changes have occurred. We’re now quicker to accept new missions. We’ve created a professional development track and are preparing future leaders with a roadmap of what they should be looking at to help them at each step of their career. We’ve looked at the operations and begun to understand the science and physics of fire dynamics, changing our tactical considerations. We’ve learned about the hazards of lightweight construction. We’ve learned more about evolving fire chemistry and what’s burning inside, changing our protective ensembles to better protect the firefighter. In the world of EMS, we’ve continued to embrace technology to improve patient care and are experimenting with new forms of patient care delivery models. The fire service as a whole is evolving, changing and learning every day.
IAFC: What advice or lessons learned would you share with emerging leaders?
Sinclair: Be a life-long learner. Be curious. Find a wise mentor and listen to them. Befriend one of the senior firefighters and have them become your teacher. Decisions are made by those who show up—so show up and help. Find a chief officer your respect from a different department and have them be your mentor. They can help you problem-solve and see things from a different perspective. Study, learn, take chances—not on the fireground—listen more than you talk. Most of all, care about people.