Home-grown chief Thad Hovis reflects on first year leading South County Fire

South County Fire Chief Thad Hovis

You might say that Thad Hovis climbed the ladder, literally, to lead South County Fire.

Starting as a volunteer with the Edmonds Fire Department 25 years ago, Hovis has spent half his life working in various fire services roles – and recently celebrated one year serving as the agency’s fire chief.

Hovis, 50, who grew up in Edmonds, said several family members were “really influential in getting me started with an interest in the fire service.”  He worked in construction for a time with his dad, who advised him that while the building trades can provide good job skills, Hovis should consider a career in firefighting.

Hovis said his dad pointed out that “the fire service isn’t a job, it’s a career and you can provide for yourself but also provide help when other people need it.” His career choice was also influenced by his aunt and uncle – both Seattle Fire Department employees — who said they recognized in their nephew qualities of compassion and teamwork that would make Hovis a good firefighter and that he should pursue it.

His dad paid for Hovis to take college classes to become certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT), which is part of a firefighter’s job. Hovis then began volunteering with Edmonds Fire Department in 1995 and took the tests necessary to be put on multiple hiring waiting lists for area fire departments. That led to a job interview a year later with the Mountlake Terrace Fire Department chief, “and the rest is history,” Hovis said.

Over the next two decades, he moved up through the ranks, working for multiple fire agencies that — after various organizational evolutions — now are affiliated with South County Fire. “I’ve worn four patches but they’re all part of our Regional Fire Authority now, which is pretty cool,’ Hovis added.

Hovis had been serving as assistant chief of operations when he became South County Fire’s interim chief in April 2020, following the retirement of previous Fire Chief Doug Dahl. The South County Fire Board of Commissioners then selected him as permanent fire chief on Aug. 5, 2020.

Thad Hovis holding four patches of fire departments he’s worked for.

Among the biggest changes Hovis has witnessed during his 25 years in fire service are the communications and technologies used on the job. With 14 fire stations and a headquarters facility under his command, he said that “communications is critical” to the organization’s success across all levels.

“Right now Snohomish County has a radio replacement project in place, so all of our communications systems are changing to new technology,” he said. “When I started out we had pagers on our hips and portable radios that weighed about three pounds and had very few channels on them. When we went outside of the county for any sort of mutual aid it was very difficult to talk to each other.”

As an EMT, he used to show up on a scene toting a clipboard to fill out the three-colored-carbon-copy forms that were to be divvied up. Now, that process has been streamlined electronically, “which is great,” Hovis added.

There’s also an increased focus today on providing emergency medical services. “It is the bulk of our business, it’s generally around 80% of our total incident type,” he said, adding that the primary reason people dial 911 “is for help with those services and/or transport to local area hospitals.”

As he has moved up the organizational ladder, Hovis has also had to adjust to changing positional requirements — going from his original duties as a firefighter helping people at the street level while on calls, to later being responsible for others throughout the organization while looking at the bigger picture, then higher-level concerns in a leadership capacity.

“You’re talking about going to a different level, thinking about not only your own performance but your team’s performance to make sure that we’re doing everything that’s in line with policy and guidelines and providing good customer service,” he said.

In his position as fire chief, “I work for everyone in the regional fire authority,” Hovis said. “I work for the public, I work for every member of this organization and I work for our seven-person elected board of fire commissioners.” That requires multiple considerations to make sure the agency is not only performing up to expectations, “but (also) where are we at now and where do we need to go into the future – (thinking) more from a horizon standpoint for the strategy to make our organization sustainable and high-performing,” he said. In addition, that work involves regularly communicating and coordinating with multiple county and city-level officials across the areas served by South County Fire.

Hovis said he’s always thinking about how the agency can continue to evolve as South County Fire receives “a lot of increased calls for assistance in different ways.” He pointed to the fire authority’s community resource paramedic program, in which the agency works to prevent the next 911 call by going to the homes of people who may need assistance. The program helps people find  “social services that might be accessible to them or look at risks or hazards in their home that could be avoided,” Hovis said.

He also highlighted the department’s ACT (Antidote, CPR and Tourniquet) classes, which teach people a variety of first aid skills including administering antidote for suspected opiate overdoses, CPR and cardiac arrest training, and using tourniquets to control severe bleeding that can help to save lives in an emergency. “There’s a lot of things that the fire service is doing now and changing that 25 years ago no one was doing it,” Hovis said.

South County Fire Board of Commissioners Chair Jim Kenny swears in Fire Chief Thad Hovis. (Photo courtesy South County Fire)

When Hovis assumed the position of interim chief, it was during a uniquely challenging time because the COVID-19 pandemic had recently taken hold. He said that a playbook for the novel situation was developed early on in coordination with other fire and health agencies in the area. That involved sharing information on the local impacts, coming up with action plans and also securing the necessary personal protective equipment to serve their communities.

Hovis said South County Fire has transported nearly 700 confirmed COVID-19 patients during the pandemic, including the first known case in the nation in January 2020.

This year the department has been assisting with COVID-19 vaccination efforts in Snohomish County at the various mass vaccination sites and elsewhere. Personnel have been going to “adult family homes, nursing homes, community events with the BIPOC community and we’re also working with the school districts to make sure that those people who want to get vaccinated for COVID have the ability to do that even if they don’t have their own transportation, can’t access mass transportation or just can’t leave their home,” he said. “It’s a pretty neat thing,” and the agency has now “field vaccinated” approximately 5,000 people, he added.

“So it has been a busy 13-month time here as chief of South County Fire, but it’s been a busy time for everybody — we’re just playing our part,” Hovis said. He credited the organization’s staff with having “actualized the word pivot” and “really modifying our mission during this time to help our community in a unique way in a time of need.”

Helping people during the pandemic has presented new challenges to be addressed in addition to the other types of calls for assistance that the fire authority usually receives. “Our agency runs about 30,000 calls annually and you’ve got to continue to do your normal work and then add your pandemic on top of that,” he said. The organization’s success, he added, is due to the efforts of staff along with the help of various stakeholders throughout the communities they serve.

“The most successful organizations are successful not because of individual efforts, but the combinations of those efforts and that’s called teamwork,’” Hovis said. He likened his philosophy on fire service to a team sport in which the department and public it serves must both rely on each other and work together to fulfill the mission. “That’s what I think is the most important principle that we can do as an organization,” Hovis said, “to enhance the lives of our community.”

Hovis said he enjoys the opportunity as fire chief to utilize his vision for taking the agency to “an even higher level.”

He noted the Regional Fire Authority (RFA) had a benefit charge approved in a ballot measure last year by the residents of Lynnwood and unincorporated areas, which had been on his list of goals. Hovis said his was the first agency to do so in Snohomish County and the accomplishment represents “a different way to have revenue come in to the fire department to support our operations that’s based on a property’s use and size” rather than its assessed value.

Hovis added that he hopes to expand the RFA structure in the future to the cities of Brier, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace, each of which currently contracts with South County Fire for emergency services and would have to hold a vote approving such a move.

He said with the Lynnwood Link light rail extension opening in 2024 and continued increases in the area’s population, coupled with taller buildings and more density, calls for 911 services will also increase. As a regional fire authority, South County Fire will “continue to evaluate and assess where we are going to need additional personnel to meet the needs of that growing population,” amid the multitude of changes coming to the area Hovis said.

Hovis looks forward to South County Fire’s continued evolution “as a fire agency into truly a 21st century, fully envisioned fire department,” with further advancements made “in embracing technology, innovation, change and really what the public envisions us to become.” He said in order to best serve communities it’s important to keep evaluating what they expect of their fire department because it is an “all hazards agency” which deals with many different types of emergencies besides putting out fires.

Hovis said he is happy serving as chief and said it makes for a wonderful situation personally. “I’ve been around this area 48-plus years now of my life and it’s neat to work in the fire service, it’s great to be local and it’s amazing to be leading an organization like South County Fire. I’m very proud of that and proud of all the employees here and the great community support that we enjoy.”

— By Nathan Blackwell

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