Jim Schneider, right, congratulates a group of captains after swearing them in. Schneider retired as chief of the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority on Aug. 30 after a more than 40-year career in fire service. COURTESY PHOTO

Farewell to the chief

Schneider retires after 15 years leading fire agency

Time is a moving thing, and time has brought to an end a four-decade fire-service career for Jim Schneider.

The 68-year-old Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority chief stepped out of his office Aug. 30 as a civilian, handing the reins over to Matthew Morris.

The chief has led the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, previously the Kent Fire Department, for the past 15 years. He guided the department through the transition from a city fire department to a regional fire authority.

Prior to leading the fire authority, Schneider was fire chief for the Clovis Fire Department in California for eight years. He began his career in the Eugene, Ore., fire department, rising to the rank of assistant chief. He worked in the Eugene department for 21 years.

Through the more than 40 years in firefighting and emergency medical service, he has witnessed profound changes. When Schneider first climbed on a fire truck, 20 percent of the calls were for emergency medical care. Today about 75 percent of the calls are for emergency medical service.

One of his most memorable calls was the first time a man died he was trying to save, and the death has stayed with him over the years. The man had suffered a heart attack.

“I never forgot it,” Schneider said. “No matter how hard we worked … thought we were going to save his life. It was the first one for me.”

The man’s death was a guiding light for his career. He saw that one man’s death affected so many people – family, friends and first responders.

“We face a lot – car wrecks, shootings – a lot,” Schneider said. “We have to take care of each other.”

Taking care of others is the legacy of Schneider’s career in the fire service.

“It’s the people,” Schneider said. “In each spot, I have gotten to know the people, and those memories never go away.”

The making of a chief

Schneider said he was first hooked by firefighters at a very young age. Once the hook was set, it was just a matter of time.

After graduating from high school he attended college and ran track. His track career came to an abrupt end when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the hurdle event.

Schneider taught high school and coached basketball for a period of time. Then a position opened in the Eugene Fire Department. The time was right, and his road became clear.

Over the many years working in the fire service as assistant chief and chief, Schneider has shown a marked ability to communicate with people from inside a fire department and outside, whether it be city officials or residents affected by a tragedy.

“The chief rarely wore his uniform, but had a presence about him that said he was the chief,” Capt. Brandon Phillips said. “Despite that, he always had time to stop and talk with you, shake your hand and (say) thank you.”

While the types of emergency services have changed, the approach to provide the best service as rapidly and compassionately as possible has not.

“The chief always led by example,” Capt. Dennis Young said. “He set the standard for ‘be nice,’ and expected everyone else to do the same.”

The fire service is not the only community work Schneider has been involved in over the years.

He lives in Covington and served as a chair of the city’s Planning Commission around 2002, working on the downtown plan.

“My privilege was to work with Margaret Harto, (City Council member and former mayor),” he said. “I always looked up to her. It was always city first with Margaret.”

Losing a son

Over the decades he learned from and helped many through hard times and tragedies. It may be that what he learned during those years helped sustain him when his life was turned inside out by the Jan. 31 death of his son, Jimmy.

The chief’s son died at the age of 42 after he was hit by a car. Schneider had been very close with Jimmy. He coached him in high school basketball. Jimmy went on to play basketball at Southwestern Oregon Community College. Schneider said the two spoke nearly every day on the phone.

His son’s death hit the chief and his wife, Kathy, very hard.

“I had dealt with a lot of death in my career,” Schneider said.

This time it was different.

When Schneider and his wife were returning from Jimmy’s memorial service, the chief said he decided to stop and get something to eat after leaving Eugene.

“We stopped at a Burgerville,” Schneider said. “We had never stopped at this one, but we went into Albany this time.”

Schneider went to wash his hands in the restroom and saw a homeless man come out. Schneider could see the man had been in the restroom cleaning up. The chief went over to the man and tried to talk to him. He gave him money to pay for a meal.

After sitting down he and his wife saw the man was crying.

The chief went back to the man and asked if he was OK.

“He said, ‘No, my son just passed,’” Schneider said. “I asked him how old his son was and he said 42. He asked how old my son was and I said 42.”

“Kathy and I couldn’t believe it,” Schneider said. “We just couldn’t believe it.”

The chief was in the right place at the right time.

The road ahead

The next road for Schneider may not be completely worked out yet, but it will show itself at the right time.

During his 15 years at the fire department Schneider can point to many accomplishments including earning international accreditation for the fire authority, developing the South King County Fire Training Consortium and the creation of the FD Cares program to improve the health of community members.

“I know that every day I wanted to come to work,” he said. “Some days there were tough decisions to make, but I wanted to be there.”

The chief said there is also a change in the relationship between police and the fire service.

“Police officers are our brothers and sisters,” he said. “We both respect each other and support each other.”

The picture of success for Schneider was coordinating services and helping people.

“The success in this organization has made everyone better,” he said. “All of us.”

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