Bill Johnston nears fire fighting career goal of Craig Fire/Rescue chief

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Bill Johnston

— A couple of different twists and turns could have changed the whole course of events for Craig Fire/Rescue Deputy Chief Bill Johnston's firefighting career.

If he hadn't been a neighbor of then-chief Tommy Cotton, and if the chief hadn't tried coaxing Johnston into joining, a 21-year career serving the department may never have been.

If there hadn't been a fire in Johnston's neighborhood one day, and if Johnston didn't witness the department's response to it, Johnston might not have joined and gradually risen through the officer ranks.

And if he'd been a little older, by a year or so, the firefighter who once set a goal of becoming chief might not be where he is now - on the brink of accomplishing that long-time aspiration.

"I've worked toward this for 21 years," Johnston said. "I've often told the Fire Department I believe it should be every firefighter's goal to be chief of the department" someday.

Johnston, 55, a 30-year Craig resident, is set to become chief in nine days, on Dec. 1. He replaces Chief Chris Nichols, who's retiring after more than 22 years on the job.

The Fire Board unanimously appointed Johnston at last week's board meeting to fill the vacancy created by Nichols' retirement.

"Reaching this culmination has been a goal of my career as a firefighter," he said. "So yeah, there will be a certain amount of fulfillment. It's always fulfilling to reach a goal."

Seeing firefighters respond to a fire in his neighborhood, along with the prodding of Cotton, was enough to convince Johnston to join the department in 1986.

"I thought it looked interesting, so I finally succumbed," he said.

An age restriction in place when Johnston joined the department - firefighters 36 years old and older were banned - almost kept Johnston, who was 35, out. Later, at the urging of firefighters, including Johnston, the restriction was lifted.

He said the allure of working with the department is trying to solve challenging, difficult calls. Calls that require a creative, measured response, he said.

"I like the ones that make me scratch my head," Johnston said. "The ones I have to think through."

Like his predecessor, and likely his predecessor's predecessor, Johnston's No. 1 priority during his tenure as chief will be firefighter safety. The Fire Department, officially established in 1921, has never lost a firefighter in the line of duty, according to department records.

"To our knowledge : we have never lost a firefighter, and that is the primary goal - to continue that tradition," he said. "That's a hell of a history to have not lost a firefighter."

Other items on his agenda as chief include continuing a long-standing department philosophy of being progressive, improving training and education, enhancing equipment and bolstering recruitment and retention efforts.

There will be a day, Johnston said, when the department will have to ask voters to increase department funding for a paid, full-time fire department. The incoming chief said he doesn't know when that time will come, but it's getting more difficult to recruit new firefighters.

"We're going to reach a crossroads sometime in the future," he said.

The incoming chief said he's up to the challenge of leading the 25-member department and accepts the responsibilities that come with the job.

"The buck stops here," he said. "Whatever happens, whether it be administratively or on a fire scene, I'm the one responsible."

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