EVERETT — As Everett’s next fire chief, Eric Hicks wants to embrace change and innovation while also keeping close the department’s rich history and traditions.
It was announced Wednesday that Hicks, a longtime Everett firefighter, will succeed Chief Murray Gordon who is set to retire in January.
Hicks will lead the department as more people are moving to the city, and developers are building higher. At the same time, there still are plenty of old-school apartments that predate modern fire codes. Every firetruck contains computers but crews also must know how to revert to pen-and-paper just in case.
Those aren’t the only challenges. The firefighters union has been without a contract since December 2014, and there is an ongoing dispute over staffing levels. There also is an increased expectation that firefighters and other public employees should reflect the people they serve.
Hicks, 45, will be the department’s first African-American chief.
He grew up in south Seattle, a self-described nerd, and graduated from Renton High School. In his youth, he worked as a garbageman, just like his father, grandfather and uncles had done. He learned to operate heavy equipment, memorize maps and talk to customers.
He knew he wanted a career where he could use his strength and his mind. At 19, he began volunteer firefighting in Skyway. He was hired full-time four years later. He liked the helping part of the job as much as the physical challenges.
“I enjoy the sense of community,” he said. “I enjoy making someone’s day better.”
Hicks was hired in Everett in 1999 and worked from Fire Station 1 downtown for a decade. After a serious muscle injury at work, he became a fire inspector and investigator. He started talking to community groups and schools about safety and fire prevention.
He was nervous about public speaking at first but found that people were hungry for information, especially after fires in their neighborhoods. Most serious blazes in Everett are caused by human behavior.
“We can’t inspect private homes but we can educate them and that’s how we get into homes — education,” he said.
Hicks became an assistant fire marshal in 2012 and then fire marshal in February. In recent years, he has represented the department at job fairs. He remembers what it was like trying to break into the business. Some people were helpful to him. Some were not.
His message for aspiring firefighters is, “If I can do it, you can do it,” regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation.
Being chief means taking care of the people in Everett and their firefighters, Hicks said. When someone calls 911 reporting flames, they expect a quick response. The department is challenged by the number of 911 calls involving non-urgent medical problems. New buildings and businesses in Everett are exciting, but they also mean more work for firefighters, he said.
The department needs to be mindful of spending but also stay progressive and innovative, he said. He’d like to see more community-style events, such as fire station open houses and safety talks with neighborhood groups.
Hicks and his wife, Agnes, live in south King County. They’ve raised two sons, a karate champion and a musician, who are both in college now.
Hicks’ new salary will be $147,156. He will oversee nearly 190 employees.
As chief, he wants to apply the same goals he’s always had for himself: to be compassionate, eager to learn and unassuming.