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‘Working together is success:' Wash. fire chief prepares to wrap up nearly 50-year career

Bob Gear has led Benton County Fire District 1 and the Pasco Fire Department; he also responded to the World Trade Center attack on 9/11

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By Cameron Probert
Tri-City Herald

PASCO, Wash. — Bob Gear has spent enough time as a firefighter to last two careers, and in that time he’s changed how fires are fought in the Tri-Cities.

The 67-year-old Pasco fire chief is preparing to close the book on a profession that has lasted nearly 50 years, and has taken him across the country to fight fires.

In that time, he has led both Benton County Fire District 1 and the Pasco Fire Department. He’s seen the counties move to a singular dispatch center based in Richland, and the various fire agencies cooperate more in unison.

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He was one of dozens of firefighters who traveled to New York City to respond to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and was named chief of the year by the Washington Association of Fire Chiefs.

He’s also helped fight some of the worst fires Benton and Franklin counties have seen, including fires in 1984 and 2000 that started on the Hanford nuclear site and burned hundreds of thousands of acres.

Gear has remained a steady presence leading firefighting efforts. His knowledge of how fire behaves in the region helped stop several other major blazes from getting worse.

Retired Richland Fire Chief Grant Baynes said working with Gear was one of the highlights of his career.

“Operationally, he was really strong,” he said. “He had a lot of experience to apply to incidents. He was also a really good listener.”

Gear changed how wildland fires were fought in the region and helped shape response across the state, said Franklin County Fire District 3 Chief Mike Harris.

“He’s always been an agent of change. He shaped Benton 1, shaped the surrounding area and then went to Pasco,” Harris said.

The city of Pasco announced that Gear is planning to retire on May 31, after he helps find his replacement.

“There is a lot happening in the city, and ... it’s time for some new blood. This is the start of year 15 for me,” he said. “I had told the firefighters that I wasn’t going to leave until we had a new chief because I want to be involved in that process.”

A real job

Gear still keeps a framed newspaper clipping photo of himself as a child touring a fire station. Above the picture someone later added the words: “It all began on a kindergarten field trip...”

While it may seem like Gear was destined to end up as a firefighter, it wasn’t at all certain, he said.

Gear was born in Port Townsend and then his family moved to Edmonds, growing up in a family that worked in construction.

When he was in high school, he was part of Snohomish County Search and Rescue, but hadn’t decided to pursue firefighting permanently.

The summer after graduating high school, he was working in logging when he was told by his grandfather that he “needed to find a real job.”

After returning to Edmonds, he heard from a friend about Bates Technical College’s fire service program.

“I went down there and went to school, got accepted into school, moved into a fire station in September 1974 and lived in fire stations until I got married in July 1977,” he said.

He was offered a chance to attend an operating engineers apprenticeship school on the same day in 1976 that he was offered a job at King County Fire District 43 in Maple Valley.

But he took the firefighting job and over the next eight years worked his way up to assistant chief. Maple Valley, which includes Highway 18, was a hard area to work at the time, he said.

He described one close call in the 70s when he was responding to an emergency call with a Washington State Patrol trooper on the highway. They were called to check on a driver who appeared to be sleeping on the side of the road.

They were talking with the man and the trooper was leaning over to ask the man for his driver’s license.

“The guy had just started to move, and the trooper grabbed him and pulled him out of the car,” Gear said. “He yells, ‘Get my cuffs!’ ... We got this guy cuffed, took him over, threw him in the car and shut the door, and I’m like, ‘What the hell happened?’”

The trooper took Gear back over to the car, and pointed out where the man’s wallet was on the passenger seat.

“He said, ‘When I asked him for his license, he didn’t reach for his wallet. He started to reach under the car seat. Let’s see what’s under there?’” Gear recalled. “So he reached down and pulled the pistol out.”

Another time, Gear was held hostage for four hours while responding to a medical call in King County. Finally a SWAT negotiator convinced the man to swap Gear for the officer.

Eventually, as Gear moved up in the ranks from field work into administration, he heard about a job in Benton County and decided it would be a new challenge to fight fires in rural areas of Eastern Washington.

He took over as chief for Benton County Fire District 1 in 1984.

Changing fire response

Chief Harris was just starting in firefighting near the Plymouth area in southern Benton County in 1984 when Gear came to the Tri-Cities area. At the time, Harris said firefighters would spend days chasing down brush fires.

He described it like watching a children’s soccer game where all of the kids were chasing the ball, but none are defending the goal.

It was the same year when a large wild fire burned 200,000 acres from Sunnyside into the Hanford area.

“Bob took this 30,000-foot view of wildland fires because we do so many of them,” Harris said. “He said, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do these fires instead of chasing them.’”

Gear began studying techniques used by other agencies to manage wild fires, and brought those back to Benton County and the Tri-Cities. The idea was to stop its advance rather than spend days chasing after the blaze.

Gear also was instrumental in putting together local and statewide incident response teams for wildland fires. That allowed a consistent planned response so firefighters didn’t need to worry about where they would rest or what they would eat.

He also participated in responses on a regional and national level as well, he said. Getting out of the community is a necessary step to become better at the job, he said.

“You can’t stay in one community your whole life and be ready for that one really bad day on your shift,” he said. “If you don’t get out and see what happened to somebody else and digest that and learn from that, then you have your one bad day as a battalion chief and it’s going to be a bad day.”

He said those experiences have taught him how to take a step back and make the decisions necessary to organize firefighters.

He also pushed for automatic aid agreements between the Benton County fire districts and Kennewick and Richland fire Departments. This agreement meant the neighbors wouldn’t need to call for help.

That change meant they wouldn’t need to wait until they were in trouble to ask for help. Instead, resources are moved to where they’re needed before any single fire department was overwhelmed, Gear said.

The Benton County Fire District 1 chief at the time also had to merge what was four separately operating fire stations into one department, Gear said.

“It was a lot of good people and a good department, but the challenge was to try and get that into being a single larger organization,” he said. “And it took a long time.”

After 24 years with the fire district, many firefighters would be eyeing retirement, but Gear was ready for a new challenge.

This time across the river in Pasco.

Moving to Pasco

The transition of moving from a somewhat rural fire district to a city’s fire department in 2009 was easier than it would have been the other way around, Gear said. At the district he needed to be able to do human services, billing and planning, among other tasks.

The city had departments and people to take care of those tasks, he said.

“It’s interesting in that you really have time to focus more on, your individual department, where in a fire district, you’ve got to kind of know it all, because you don’t have a whole lot of staff,” he said.

At the city, he continued to work on getting the Tri-Cities fire departments to work closer. That included working to include Pasco in the automatic aid agreements in 2009.

He also championed moving to a single emergency dispatching center for the two counties. Before 2018, Franklin and Benton counties would each take 911 calls for their areas.

Bringing it under one roof meant less confusion, especially in the age of cellphones where callers in one city would show in another because of a cell tower’s location.

The department also expanded the number of stations. Even after his retirement, Gear plans to still be involved in the construction of the newest fire station on Road 100.

He continued to work on large wildland fires as well. In all, he’s helped on fires in all of the western states, as well as Virginia and Florida. He said no matter where the fire is, it continues to behave the same way.

“There is no such thing as unexpected fire behavior,” he said. “Fire is going to burn downwind or uphill. ... We know what it’s going to do, and we have really good forecasting, and we have really good fire behavior analysts.”

He said heading the department really gives him the chance to have the best of both worlds. He doesn’t need to get out of bed at 2 a.m. to respond to calls unless it’s a big fire.

“I think it’s the best job in the fire department,” he said.

When Harris thinks about Gear’s career, he remembers a Henry Ford quote that Gear had in his office.

“It says, ‘Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress and working together is success,’” Harris said.

Retirement

Gear, a grandfather of five, isn’t sure he’d be retiring if he didn’t have some hard work to look forward to.

He said his son is the one who convinced Gear’s wife that they should buy 85 acres of forest land in the Blue Mountains.

“It was my son who said, ‘If you ever expect dad to retire, he’s got to have something else to do. He’s not going to sleep until 10 and go grocery shopping with you at noon,” Gear recalled.

“I have an excavator and a track loader and a dozer and dump truck and two sawmills,” he said. “So I got plenty to do the day I walk out of here. I got lots to do on my timber property. There’s always stuff to do there.”

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