New chief says he’s here to stay

Hank Lipe stands next to the rubber boat Vashon Island Fire & Rescue uses for marine rescue. Lipe significantly increased marine capabilities at his former fire department.  - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Hank Lipe stands next to the rubber boat Vashon Island Fire & Rescue uses for marine rescue. Lipe significantly increased marine capabilities at his former fire department.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

After a month on the job, Hank Lipe, the Island’s new fire chief, has made a promise to the community: He’s here to stay, unlike his predecessor, who helmed the department for less than a year.

Coming from Hampton, N.H., Lipe said he won’t miss the snowy winters of New England and that the position he took on Aug. 18, as well as the community itself, have convinced him Vashon is the right place to set down roots.

“My wife and I don’t plan on coming here for just a year,” Lipe said. “My daughter Shannon is very excited to move here. We’d like to call it home for a long time.”

Lipe, 53, is a straightforward man with a commanding presence and a warm smile. He moved more than 3,000 miles to take the reins at a fire district that’s half the size of his former district, covers more than twice as much land and has had a rocky past few years.

He admits his first weeks had a bump or two.

Lipe got lost on one of his first aid calls, he said, even with multiple maps of the Island in the car.

“I was completely turned around and very frustrated,” Lipe said with a chuckle.

After searching for the elusive address for more than 20 minutes, he went back to the fire station and asked for help.

“I said, ‘hey, can somebody take me where we were this morning?’” he said.

He said the task of learning Island addresses will be ongoing.

But the geographical map of Vashon may be much easier to navigate than the political landscape of the department, an agency that sometimes struggles with the needs of its community — the belief that all parts of Vashon and Maury should receive quick emergency aid is chief among them.

“I’ll tell you what, he has got his work cut out for him,” said Paul Stoddard, a retiree who was a volunteer firefighter on Vashon for 28 years and continues to be active in Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) issues.

Some parts of the Island, such as Tahlequah and Maury Island, can be more than 15 minutes from Station 55 on Bank Road. Lipe admits response times on Vashon are a problem, and said bolstering VIFR volunteers will be instrumental in the fight to keep times low.

Fire stations at the north end, Dockton and Tahlequah are no longer manned, though equipment remains inside and volunteers have access to the stations. But without volunteers nearby, the equipment is useless.

“In today’s hard economic times, volunteerism is not as high as it used to be,” Lipe said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Additionally, he said, on an Island, there’s no aid from nearby fire departments.

“All of us have to be good at what we do, have to be confident in our skill and have to manage the incident without any other assistance other than the equipment we have at the time of the incident,” Lipe said.

Those who have followed the saga of VIFR’s administrative woes seem optimistic that Lipe will thrive on Vashon and heal the departments wounds.

“He seems to have the basics well in hand,” said Will Spencer of Lipe. “He just has to get the chance to get his feet on the ground.”

Like Stoddard, Spencer, a former fire chief at several districts including Vashon’s, has seen VIFR go through decades of change.

Mike Kirk, VIFR assistant chief, said that Lipe’s experience with emergency management in Hampton will benefit the Island’s disaster preparedness efforts. Lipe said he was instrumental in bolstering Hampton’s marine rescue and marine firefighting capabilities.

The beachfront community of 14,000 in the winter and 100,000 in the summer is

a mile away from a nuclear power plant, and Lipe had a hand in year-round preparatory planning there.

Still, he said he was happy to see that Vashon is better equipped for disaster than any of the communities in the vicinity of the New Hampshire nuclear plant.

He said he hopes to “grab the baton and keep running” with disaster preparedness efforts on Vashon.

Lipe, who’s making $105,000 a year as Vashon’s highest paid public official, has made good impressions at VIFR, staff said.

“He’s very affable, is frank about his experience, and asks a lot of questions about how we do things here,” said Kirk. “He has a great leadership style.”

Steve Palmer, who represents Vashon’s firefighter union — which also includes paramedics and the district’s battalion chief, maintenance supervisor and mechanic — said Lipe is a “fresh presence” in the department.

“He seems to care about both the career staff and the volunteer staff,” Palmer said. “Everybody who’s had any contact with him so far is very encouraged by what they saw.”

Lipe began his firefighting career as a volunteer in Montgomery, Ohio, a Midwestern town of 10,000. He quickly advanced in the department, which, similar to Vashon, had both volunteer and paid firefighters, and served as its chief before moving to New Hampshire to helm another combination department in Windham, N.H.

Only Lipe’s position as head of Hampton’s fire department has been with an all-paid firefighting staff.

Hampton has 47 full-time firefighters; Vashon’s labor union represents 19.

“With the exception of Hampton, I’ve always been on a department much like Vashon, so I feel like I’m back to work I’m very confident with,” he said.

He’s already made strides to get to know the Island and its inhabitants — he did an overflight of the Island last week, and makes a point to visit a different Island business or venue every day.

“I want everybody to know who I am and the type of person I am — when they see a name, they can recognize it, and when they see a face they know the name,” Lipe said. “I think it brings some validity to my position as a public figure here on the Island. It helps them feel more comfortable about who their next fire chief is.”

He’s visited 14 businesses in his first two weeks as chief, as diverse as the Burton General Store, Bob’s Bakery and John L. Scott Realty. He also sat down for coffee with Islanders involved in different aspects of the community.

“I don’t want to be a person that is not accessible to the public,” he added.

He said he feels lucky to be joining a strong fire department.

“You can have all the equipment and all the facilities and all the money you want, but if you don’t have good people to run those, you have nothing,” Lipe said. “The people here have good core values, and they need good leadership.”

Many Islanders are hopeful that Lipe will provide just that, and make good on his promise to call Vashon home. Previous officials left some Islanders feeling resentful and betrayed. Vashon’s most recent fire chief, Keith Yamane, left the department after less than a year. Before that, Jim Wilson departed under a cloud of controversy.

“There are memories, there are opinions and there are some scars, and an organization has those,” Lipe said. “I always say in the fire service, that as firefighters and EMTs, we didn’t create the problem, but it’s our job to mitigate it. Think about that analogy. There’s a history here; the prior chiefs did what they did, and I’m moving forward.”

He said he planned to serve the community, not force it to work for him.

“It’s not about me. It’s about what I can do for this organization, what we can do as a team to make it more efficient,” he said. “Hank Lipe for the Island, not the other way around — there are some chiefs out there who think that way.”

He said he’s glad to arrive on Vashon at the same time the state is performing an audit of the district, so he’ll soon know “the changes that need to be made on a fiscal scale.”

The biggest incident Lipe has faced in his first weeks on the job was a one-car collision at the north-end ferry dock Aug. 28. Only the driver of the vehicle involved was injured.

“We got pretty lucky on that one,” he said. “That could have easily turned into a mass casualty.”

He said VIFR’s response to that incident was “right on.” He said he was impressed with their management of the situation, and added he has been “generally impressed with the level of care provided by the EMTs and paramedics.”

The chief’s integration into his new role on Vashon is far from complete, however. His wife Marianne, daughter Shannon and two dogs are still in New Hampshire. Hopefully, the family will move to the Island in October, Lipe said.

“Shannon’s daddy-sick,” and his dogs are doing no better, he said. Lipe is living in a short-term rental but looking at property on Vashon. He said he’s felt very welcomed by Islanders.

As for VIFR, “we’re going to make some adjustments, do some fine-tuning,” he said. “Operationally, they’re doing a really good job. It’s going to take a little time to find the areas where we need to improve.”

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