He didn’t know it at the time, but Bud Backer was being led down the yellow brick path of a fire fighter long before he started volunteering with the Duvall fire department in 1988.
Now, Backer will be East Pierce Fire and Rescue’s fire chief after signing his contract May 19.
“I’m very excited to come on board,” Backer said. “It’s just as exciting as my first day on the job.”
Backer’s first official day at East Pierce is June 15.
Although his career started much later, Backer was influenced by a battalion chief in Richland where he grew up, whom Backer looked up to as a second father figure.
“I didn’t realize he was maybe planting seeds, and after I got out of college and I moved into West Richland, a friend of mine that I went to high school with, who was also mentored by him, he called and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be a volunteer firefighter?’”
It wasn’t long, Backer said, before he caught the bug.
“It doesn’t take much,” he said. “You go out and be involved in a couple incidents where you made the difference and somebody came home from the hospital because of what you did, and that kind of job satisfaction is pretty rare, I think. And once you get a taste of it, you just want to keep doing it.”
While volunteering in West Richland, he was also working at the Hanford nuclear site, splitting his time between mechanical engineering and installing fire protection systems while learning how to be a firefighter.
When things started slowing down at the job site and layoffs were looming, Backer decided to take the plunge and start looking for a full-time firefighting position.
Backer got hired by Duvall in 1988, and he worked his way up the ranks until he was the fire chief for his last two years there.
“From there, in 2000, I moved to Woodinville. I was the deputy chief of operations,” Backer said. “The reason I did that was I was looking for experience with a larger department, so I did that and I was there until the end of 2009. I served as interim chief on two occasions when there were changes at the top.”
After Woodinville, Backer went to Eastside Fire and Rescue as a battalion chief for the first year there, and then as deputy chief the year after.
Backer said the biggest challenge he will be facing as East Pierce’s fire chief will be the financial issues looming over department after losing both operations and maintenance levies in the 2014 primary and general elections.
Losing both the levies cut East Pierce’s budget by more than $3 million, forcing the department to cut back on community programs and even discuss fire fighter layoffs.
“I don’t want to be vain enough to think I’m coming in with the actual answers,” Backer said. “But I think I’m coming in with the right questions to ask.”
Backer said his plan is to look at the East Pierce budget and try to find ways to cinch the belt a little tighter around the department’s waist.
“At Eastside, we’ve gone through some budget cutbacks, but a lot of those had to do with not shrinking revenues but reallocating where the funds went and being more efficient with how we spent the money. That’s what I am thinking here,” he said. “We can look at programs that cost a lot of money to run – are some of those programs where we can cinch up our belts a little bit?”
However, Backer said the department’s strength is in its community programs, which he plans to keep healthy through examining the budget.
“I think we need to keep as many (community programs) as strong as we can. That is where we touch a lot of the public and make critical contact with folks,” said Backer. “A lot of those are delivering prevention messages, and of course, the more you can prevent, the less likely we have to go on that emergency run.”
Before East Pierce began looking for a fire chief in March, the department saw Deputy Chief John McDonald, East Pierce Commissioner Rick Kuss and Fire Chief Jerry Thorson announce their retirements.
With three senior staff members leaving the department, Backer said this will impact the district, but it is also an opportunity for the department to examine its overall structure.
“What I hope to do is take a look at the folks that are still here, see what their skill sets are and how much they can do, and transfer some of that functionality and make do with the folks that we have,” Backer said. “I want to give them the shot to fill some of those gaps, and I think we need to look at our overall structure. Is what we were doing before the right way to use our people? Or is there a better way to do that?”
As chief, Backer will be balancing the needs and wants of the fire fighters, the fire commissioners and the Local Union 3520.
“I’m collaborative and I like to include people in my decision-making process, but in doing that, I don’t take a long time to make decisions,” Backer said. “I like to get the decision made and get to work on something, and if we have to tweak it, tweak it. I tried not to get mired down in the process and planning portions. I want to get things done.”
Backer described himself more as a hands-off sort of leader, and definitely not a micromanager.
“Micromanaging, for one, takes a lot of time away from what the fire chief should be doing. So I make assignments and let people run with them, and then touch base every once in a while to make sure they are not stringing off someplace they shouldn’t go,” he said. “But I recognize there is always more than one way to do things, and just because I would have done something one way doesn’t mean the person you assigned it to is doing it wrong. They’re just doing it a different way.”
Trust, Backer said, is extremely important, whether it’s between the public and the fire department or between the facets of the department itself.
To Backer, trust means giving fire fighter and emergency medical personnel the space and power they need to advance themselves in their career and further the department.
“If you don’t trust your people and give them the reign to do that, they’re not going to learn and they’re not going to be advance the organization when they’re done,” Backer said.
Reach Ray Still at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-825-2555 ext. 5058. Follow him on Twitter @rayscottstill for more news, pictures and local events.