Tim Fuller can't sit still. During a recent interview in his office, he rose from his chair several times to point out photos and other...
Tim Fuller can’t sit still. During a recent interview in his office, he rose from his chair several times to point out photos and other keepsakes from his 32-year-career at the St. Paul, Minn., fire department.
He retired as fire chief there in 2003, after 12 years in the top job, but his time off didn’t last long. Instead of focusing on golf and motorcycle riding, as he planned, he taught at the National Fire Academy and worked as a manager for the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
He and his wife, Martha, moved to Seattle last summer after she was hired as the chief financial officer for the Seahawks. Before the end of the year, he was talking to Redmond city officials about becoming their new fire chief.
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Fuller, 57, started in February and has several plans for the department, including a greater emphasis on keeping firefighters healthy, a focus on diversity, a long-term strategic plan for the department and a career-development program that expands opportunities and develops viable internal candidates to succeed him as chief.
“If I demonstrate energy and enthusiasm, that’s a trickle-down effect,” Fuller said. “If [firefighters] see the fire chief in his office sitting there eight hours a day and then going home, you know, it’s kind of like, of course, [they’ll] do that. So I like to get around and talking.”
Here are excerpts from a recent conversation:
Q. How has the new job been going?
Career: Served 32 years with St. Paul, Minn., fire department, including 12 years as fire chief. Retired in 2003 and had a couple of part-time jobs before starting as Redmond fire chief in February 2005. Was a finalist for Seattle fire chief in 2001.
Family: Wife Martha Fuller, chief financial officer for the Seahawks. He has two grown daughters from a previous marriage.
A. It’s been going good. … This department has a really good reputation. It was one of the things that drew me to it because there were other opportunities for me and I was kind of iffy about some [of them]. … [The department has] a great culture of regional partnerships … and [it’s] progressive. They [have] a real desire to learn.
Q. Was there anything you learned in St. Paul that you are trying to do differently?
A. When you’re working in a city like St. Paul and you have fairly defined boundaries, it was a little bit more difficult to form those different partnerships with other agencies. We had a pretty good relationship with Minneapolis, and you had automatic [help at fire scenes between the cities]. But it was a little tougher road with other agencies out there …
I followed a chief there that had been chief for 25 years. It wasn’t in his nature to seek those partnerships with other organizations. So when you have that kind of tradition, it’s kind of hard to bend it a little bit.
Q. What did you want to do here right away?
A. The first thing I wanted to do is establish some real clear communications. People have to feel like they can talk to me, and that I can talk to them …
Another area is career and professional development. … What I’m looking for is the next fire chief of Redmond comes from the department itself, that that opportunity exists … . Even if you don’t become fire chief, all the things that you can learn along the way are obviously going to help you improve and help you be more successful and gain confidence.
Q. Why did you decide to retire in St. Paul?
A. Number one is I had more than 32 years in the fire service and I really thought there were some other things I could do. I was always telling firefighters who were retired: “You know, you’ve got an awful lot you can contribute to the community … .” I didn’t want to tell the mayor that, yeah, I’ll go for another term and then only stay for like, two years. I just didn’t feel that was the right thing to do. (In St. Paul, the City Council hires the fire chief for six-year terms, and Fuller was approaching the end of his second term.)
Q. Do you feel you made any mistakes in St. Paul?
A. The only thing that I can think of is [in the late ’90s] … the black firefighters felt everybody else was getting a break and they weren’t. And I couldn’t figure out exactly what that was [about]. Well, the perception was they weren’t getting information, like for promotional exams, like other people were. Well, I knew that wasn’t the case. … But it was a perception thing. The problem, if there was a problem, was that I didn’t know how to change the perception. I wasn’t sure how to get that done. I thought I was doing it right
So whenever you have an organization and someone has a perception, and it’s not in keeping with what you know is the reality, a leader has to figure out a way to change that perception. When I came to [Redmond], I told everybody, I said, “Look, if there’s something that we’re doing and we don’t feel we can share that with everybody, including the public, then we need to stop doing it.” And the only other management principle I have is, “Do the right thing for the right reason.” You know, pretty simple stuff, really.
Q. Some big-city police and fire chiefs are known for taking “sunset” jobs in sleepy, smaller towns during their retirement. Is the Redmond position a sunset job?
A. No, they came looking for me. I wasn’t looking for a sunset job. If anybody has that sense around here, they haven’t been around me and they haven’t heard me. When I came in, I could have been a caretaker. I could have come in and said everything’s hunky-dory. … But number one, it’s not in my nature to do that. Perhaps I can’t leave things alone.
But number two, when I met with the mayor [Rosemarie Ives] and I met with the City Council, it was a challenge to them and a challenge to me: If I’m going to come here, we’re going to do stuff. … What I’m doing is creating a vision for the department. It’s got to start here.
Q. Your wife works for the Seahawks. What do you think of their chances this year?
A. (Smiles.) I think they’re great. I like the organization. … You know, I was never a big football fan. I was a hockey guy. And I came here and I said, “Yeah, this [sport] is great, this is OK.” I went to the first couple games and I started getting into it. And now I’m really looking forward to this next season.
Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567