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Chief Renn Ross


Ask retiring Boise Fire Department Chief Renn Ross what he thought he would grow up to be, and he doesn't hesitate to say with a laugh that he wanted to be a rock star. And although careers in law and education appealed to him in college, Chief Ross joined the department in 1978 and, in 1991, was appointed fire chief. As he prepares to retire at the end of this month, BW chatted with the chief about his 28-year career.

How did you end up with BFD?

I started with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management fighting fires in the summertime to pay for college. Also my dad was one of the founders and the volunteer fire chief in Star, where I grew up. And so I was one of the those kids that was around it a lot but it wasn't something I thought about doing as a career.

And how many fires would you say that you've battled over the years?

When I joined the fire department, I was a firefighter in an engine company and I don't know how many fires I went on. We have about 13,000 to 14,000 alarms a year, and I'm notified of all the major stuff and I go to all of those, but this job is a lot more administrative. I'm not the head firefighter. When I pull up, they just kind of say, "Hi chief, just stay back and don't hurt yourself."

What are your day-to-day responsibilities administratively?

We're a pretty large organization now. We have 251 people and we have 15 fire stations. So I'm actually just responsible for the day-to-day management as well as for the strategic planning, the long-term planning. I spent a lot of time dealing with growth, where the fire department needs to be as the city grows, how we maintain the level of service. In our case, time is the enemy. If your house is on fire, we need to get there quickly. If you're having a medical emergency, we need to get there quickly. So we define our service level and we do a lot of planning and spend a lot of our time budgeting and planning to make sure we maintain that level of service.

Have you ever rescued a cat from a tree?

I never have.

Do you get to slide down a pole at least?

Yeah, you know when I came on, some of the stations had the dorm with the sleeping area upstairs, and you'd slide the pole. It's fun and it's a kick, but the poles used to be located so that you would go from the sleeping area down the pole and you'd be in the rig room next to the apparatus. Well, over the years we realized these fire trucks, which were diesel powered, that diesel exhaust is a carcinogen so having a sleeping area located above isn't a good idea. Now the fire stations are all equipped with exhaust evacuation systems. When a truck is pulled into the bay, it's hooked up to a system and that dirty black smoke is pumped outside. So we kind of got away from pole holes for a while. But on some of our locations, where we've built newer stations, we've had to go back to dwellings upstairs again so now we obviously locate the pole hole inside the dwelling part. So pole holes are starting to make a comeback.

I think a lot of people get their idea of a firefighter from movies like Backdraft or Ladder 49. Have you seen those?

Oh yeah, I went to Backdraft. In fact, The Statesman had me and a couple other Boise firefighters go out and preview Backdraft when it first came out and I've seen Ladder 49, too.

Are they pretty accurate descriptions?

No. (Followed by a long laugh.) No, that's not accurate at all. The reality is when we get to a fire, our job is to get to the heat of the fire and put it out and most of the time, we're crawling on the floor in zero visibility. In fairness to the Hollywood producers, you couldn't produce a movie of what it's actually like because it would just be a pitch black screen and it's so hot you can't hardly breathe. So I don't know how you would do a film.

What was the most gratifying event in your career?

Like I said, we respond to about 14,000 calls a year and the majority of those are medical calls. From the time I came on, all the firefighters were trained as basic EMTs and then Ada County has always run the paramedic program. But we just always felt like we could make the service delivery to the citizens better if we also had paramedics on the engines because we tend to get there quicker. We have more fire stations located throughout the city than what Ada County has ambulances located throughout the entire county. We're more concentrated, so we always had the opinion that if we picked strategic engine companies and put paramedics on them, we could get a paramedic on scene to someone who was having a heart attack quicker than what Ada County does. Not to duplicate their service because we're not in the transport business and they can get there in eight minutes where as we can usually get there in four minutes. It took us a long time to get the medical community to accept that it was a good thing to do, but now we have 17 or 18 paramedics. We have three engine companies that every day have paramedics on them and that helps support the Ada County system.

The years went so fast I can't believe it's over. There were good times and bad times. The city went through the 1 percent initiative and that impacted the fire department. We had layoffs, there were 29 members of the department that were laid off, and I was one of those. On the whole, I couldn't ask for a better opportunity. I thought my chances of becoming a chief would be to leave the area and go to some smaller department. But when this opportunity opened up, they gave me a shot and I guess they were happy with me. It worked out for 15 years. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and I will miss the firefighters and the people in the fire department. We're a real close-knit group. We all have the same vision of how can we deliver good service to the citizens.

What are you planning to do next?

For the next few years I'm going to help the Whitney Fire District. They're dealing with some growth and pressure from developers to be annexed into their district. They have a couple of stations they want to build in their fire district. They're going to call me a fire chief, and I'm going to have an office and work there, but since Whitney contracts with the City of Boise for personnel, I won't have any personnel to deal with.

So you're not retiring just to go fishing?

No. I'm not quite ready for that.