By Jonathan Glover
SPOKANE, Wash. — Rex Strickland couldn't be further from home.
Coming from a county in Virginia whose eastern edge rubs against the nation's capital, the Spokane Fire Department's newest deputy fire chief is used to the rain. Lots of rain. And the people. Even more of them.
That means he's also acclimated to a bit more action than he'll get in the other Washington's second biggest city. With 29 years of service under his belt at Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, he cut his teeth from the formative age of 16 to an early retirement at 45, where he served a population of 1.1 million people inside an area one-third the size of Rhode Island.
Now, in the second half of his fire-centric career, he'll lead training and safety for all new — and current — firefighters in the Lilac City.
“So far, I love it,” Strickland said of his first week on the job. “It's all dramatically different than the East Coast.”
Strickland's appointment comes a week after the department concluded an investigation into Spokane Fire Department Station 2, where five firefighters, including battalion chiefs, were disciplined following a months-long inquiry into reports of hazing, bullying and harassment.
Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said that when he was appointed to head the department last year, he made it a priority to ensure leadership was not only out front facing to the public, but was also an inspiration to all department employees.
That commitment meant casting a wide net during the recruitment process, which he said took months and resulted in a “long list” of applicants internationally.
“And we were fortunate enough to find Rex,” he said. “I'm thoroughly impressed.”
Schaeffer said he hoped Strickland would help lead a culture change at the fire department. Starting first with possibly revamping how they train new hires and then setting their sights on the department as a whole.
“Leaning into tough topics and wicked problems such as workplace respect, diversity, and greater understanding on human dynamics is tough work and needs exceptional talent at the top,” he said. “You really have to engage with people and start working on the culture.”
Other than firefighting, Strickland said he's an avid outdoorsman, with a passion for hiking, boating, hunting, fishing and swimming — all things he hopes to do once settled in to the Indian Trail neighborhood. He moved there last week with his wife and three children — two daughters aged 12 and 17 and a 14-year-old son.
“I'm really, really looking forward to what this area has to offer,” he said. “My son is an avid sportsman as well.”
Strickland first became a firefighter as a teen, when he dropped in at a firehouse with the intent of finding a temporary job. It worked. And for the following three decades, he stuck with it, he said, each day bringing a new appreciation.
So when the opportunity came to enter administration, it didn't even require a second thought, he said. And while his days of chasing fires with a hose were over, he said his appreciation for the job in its second phase was just getting started.
“I enjoy helping people,” he said. “If I see someone who can't change a tire on the side of the road, I'm the guy who stops. It's the little things.”
Copyright 2018 The Spokesman-Review
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