Tumwater fire chief reflects on career as retirement nears

Staff writerMarch 19, 2014 

Standing in Station 1 on Wednesday next to the department’s newest and most technologically advanced engines, Tumwater Fire Chief John Carpenter talks about retiring in April after 32 years with the department.

STEVE BLOOM — Staff photographer Buy Photo

One of the proudest moments in Tumwater Fire Chief John Carpenter’s career came with a plate of cookies and a mystery photo of a teenager named Amy.

The items were left at his office. A card accompanied the photo, saying Carpenter had helped save the girl’s life when she went into respiratory arrest as a 3-month-old baby. Carpenter was among the paramedics who responded to the emergency.

With no records on file of the incident, Amy remained a mystery until about two years ago, when she and her mother stopped by the fire station unannounced. Carpenter immediately recognized Amy, who was then a grown woman fresh out of grad school.

“There’s a sales pitch for CPR,” said Carpenter, who learned that Amy’s mother was the nurse who had cared for his dying father. “It was this very small world and all these connections. That’s one of my proudest moments.”

Carpenter is retiring after spending 32 years, with the Tumwater Fire Department, including the past eight years as chief. Carpenter never thought he would stay that long in one place.

“I found a career that I loved, and I love helping the citizens,” he said. “And on top of that, they paid me for it.”

Carpenter’s last day on the job is April 16. The City Council is expected to review options for Carpenter’s successor in the coming months. In the meantime, Assistant Chief Jim McGarva will take over the role. The Tumwater Fire Department has 41 firefighters and about 13 volunteers.

McGarva said Carpenter has been a big advocate for emergency management and has worked hard to secure funding through public levy campaigns. Carpenter excels at maintaining relationships with elected officials in the community and with other fire departments in the region, McGarva said.

“He has the ability to look at an issue objectively and do what’s best for the taxpayers. He prides himself in making sure we operate efficiently,” McGarva said.

Carpenter is a Portland native who grew up overseas. His father’s job with the IRS took the family around the world, including stints in Panama and Beirut. Carpenter’s first foray into the fire service began in 1977 as a volunteer in Yelm – after he and his father purchased a tavern next door to the Yelm Fire Department.

Soon, he became a paramedic, and joined the Tumwater department in 1982.

Much has changed for the Fire Department over the years. Volunteers are harder to find, he said, and today’s houses are built closer together with more combustible materials.

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the mission to save lives. Carpenter recalled the time his department used portable defibrillators to save a woman whose heart had stopped. Two weeks later, she knocked on the department’s door to say “thank you” with a bag of Oreo cookies. She apologized for not baking cookies, Carpenter said.

“I told her, ‘sit down and let me explain something to you. You were able to walk in here and talk to me, and you’re back at work two weeks later,’ ” Carpenter recalled. “That makes this all worthwhile.”

“He’s been a good leader. He’ll be missed,” McGarva said.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869

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