After seven years as chief of Benton Fire District 4 and leading the small department in launching ambulance service in West Richland, Mike Spring is saying goodbye.
But the veteran firefighter won't be going far -- he will be a battalion chief for the Hanford Fire Department.
"I think it's an opportunity for me to learn new things, new skills," said Spring, whose last day as West Richland's chief is Monday. "Some people say it's a step down, but I'm actually going to be in charge of more people than now because it's a bigger department. I think of it as a side-step with some new challenges."
New challenges have come for Spring several times during his career, which began in 1977 as a resident firefighter before he was hired full time the next year in La Grande. He then went to work for the Walla Walla Fire Department in 1985, then became chief of the College Place Fire Department in 1997 before taking over at Benton Fire District 4 in 2004.
Spring said he's wanted to work more with the local incident management team, which coordinates responses to big fire emergencies, but as chief of a small district he always had to stay and manage his own personnel. Hanford Fire always has been generous in lending employees to incident management teams, he said, so he's hoping he can help lead them.
He said he also thinks his departure can help District 4.
"I believe in term limits, and that you can get stale doing the same job over and over again," he said. "Fire service actually needs change. As I grew up, it was always a joke that the fire service changes one retirement at a time, and I think it's true. I don't think chiefs should be there forever."
He added, "The community and the commissioners, I think we've made huge strides, and I'd rather take on a new opportunity at the top. I think they're on top of the game and this opens up a chance (to look at increasing collaboration with other Tri-City agencies). I truly believe collaborating is necessary and in the betterment of our service."
Spring, along with chiefs from Kennewick, Richland and Pasco fire departments and Benton Fire Districts 1 and 2, have been working for several years to combine resources to provide better, more cost-efficient service.
Kennewick Fire Chief Neil Hines and Richland Fire Chief Grant Baynes have worked closely with Spring for years, including sharing office space at the Joint Fire Administration Center on Gage Boulevard in Kennewick.
"I'm happy for him. It's a nice career move for him. ... He's been a great partner and we've worked well with him," Hines said. "It's obviously going to present some challenges with the collaboration we have going on, but I hope that can continue."
Baynes echoed that, saying Spring has been on-board with collaboration efforts from the start, and he hopes whatever plan the district's commissioners come up with continues those efforts.
"I think it's a great move for Mike and there's definitely an opportunity for us," he said. "Personally, I'll miss him. I really enjoyed working with him."
The chiefs are talking to the District 4 commissioners to see if there's a way for the agencies to either cover the loss of Spring so a new chief doesn't have to be hired or to help the commissioners in hiring a chief who supports consolidation efforts.
A similar effort happened when current Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear left Benton Fire District 1, where he had been the longtime chief. An arrangement was made for Baynes to handle the administrative duties of the chief's job -- personnel and budget issues -- while Mike Harris was promoted to division chief to handle day-to-day operations. Harris' position recently was changed to deputy chief because he's taking on more of the responsibilities that Baynes initially took, Baynes said.
Those involved said the plan has worked pretty well with District 1, but they're not sure if something similar would work with District 4. There are more complexities involved in running District 4, because it has a contract to provide fire protection to West Richland and the ambulance service that started this month, Hines said.
The ambulance service started with one full-time paid paramedic, but three more were hired and are to begin work March 1, Spring said. Two of the new paramedics were volunteers with Benton Fire District 1 and the third was a volunteer with the College Place Fire Department.
They're state-certified but still need to get county certification, which can take up to six weeks, he said. They will be riding with Kennewick, Pasco and Richland fire departments to complete their certifications.
Spring said reaction to the new ambulance service has been great and things have gone smoothly.
"On the very first shift, we had no calls, but since then it's been like the flood gates opened," he said. He said that included sending the ambulance to a Richland fire so the department could run one more engine.
Spring said getting the ambulance service started, which residents had wanted for years, was a highlight of his time in West Richland. He has volunteered to help the district commissioners make sure all goes properly with the ambulance start-up.
Spring said District 4 has made big steps since he started. Seven years ago, the department had three paid firefighters, but once the paramedics are on board there will be 12 paid staff. That will put a minimum of three paid firefighters on duty every day.
"That was a huge step," he said. "There was a time when I first started here we were waiting for volunteers to show up when somebody was having a heart attack. ... We couldn't have done it without the community support. They wanted this service level and we just helped them attain it."
Spring said fire service in the Tri-Cities also made a big jump forward with creation of the joint administrative center.
"It's pretty unique for a whole bunch of fire chiefs to work together. It's unusual," he said. "The things we have been able to accomplish are really a boundary-less response, which is pretty amazing. I think we maximize service by being able to work together."