Retiring Wash. fire chief recalls 44-year career

By Rolf Boone
The Olympian

OLYMPIA, Wash. — After 44 years in the fire service — 20 as Olympia fire chief — Larry Dibble, 65, will call it a career at the end of the month.

He is the longest serving fire chief in the city's history. The next fire chief will be current deputy fire chief Greg Wright. But Wright is set to retire, too, so he expects to serve 18 months in that role before a new chief is appointed by the Olympia city manager.

Dibble was born in Olympia, raised in Tumwater, attended Tumwater High School and took a two-year fire program at what would later become Bates Technical College in Tacoma. His father, a foreman in the Olympia brewery welding department, volunteered as a firefighter in Tumwater.

Dibble was a junior firefighter at age 13 and a resident firefighter at 16 with Lacey Fire District 3 –and he was allowed to drive a fire engine, he said. He also volunteered with Tumwater Fire. His first official stint with Olympia Fire began in May 1972. He later was fire chief in Poulsbo — and was briefly Poulsbo's city manager — then applied to be a battalion chief in Olympia where he remained for more than 30 years.

He said returning to Olympia was one of the best days of his life.

The worst day, he said, is when Olympia firefighter Mark Noble died on the job in 2005. Noble was the first line-of-duty death in the department's history.

Dibble was appointed Olympia Fire Chief on Feb. 1, 1998.

"He had taken a department and started to change its culture," Wright said about Dibble. "It went from a very traditional hierarchy to a group of people who worked together for the common good."

The fire service also has changed during Dibble's tenure. At one time, it was almost strictly fire response, but now 72 percent of calls to Olympia Fire are for medical service.

The Olympian sat down with the fire chief last week.

Q: Did you ever imagine that you would be a fire chief one day?

A: Not a clue, but I knew I wanted to be a career firefighter and I wanted to work in Olympia. I remember reading the paper at 13 and they were begging for firefighters, but the pay was lousy and the hours were worse. I think it paid $225 per month, maybe less. But I said, 'I'd do that!'

Q: How has the fire service changed?

A: It has changed dramatically. We never used to respond to medical calls. We sometimes went to rescues, but it was almost strictly fire response. And there were a lot of fires back then. As building codes changed, the number of fires has gone down. Safety has changed. We used to respond to fires with a coat and helmet and seldom wore a mask. Now, you put on a mask before you almost get out of the cab. We are very conscious about cancer.

Q: What was the biggest fire you ever responded to?

A: The Tyee Motel fire was the biggest, January 1970. The whole complex burned down. The most costly fire in Olympia was Hardel Plywood on West Bay Drive, September 1996. As far as seeing big flames, the Tyee; as far as the biggest loss, Hardel.

Q: What was the most unusual call?

A: The really strange ones are when you get someone in the bathroom thinking that UFOs are around. And usually they are just lonely and want to talk to someone at 3 in the morning.

Q: Any acts of heroism that will stay with you?

A: Yes, it was an apartment fire on North Street at Hoadly Street in 1978-79. Single-story, all elderly residents and the fire was going pretty good. A Tumwater firefighter entered the building without a breathing apparatus and pulled out a woman before we even set up. It looked bad, but he saved her life. He received a heroism award and she presented it to him.

Q: As you get ready to leave, what do firefighters need?

A: They continue to need support in the medical call area. And a lot of support when it comes to cancer prevention. Those are two big-ticket items that are going to need the support of the city.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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