Retiring I.F. Fire Chief Dean Ellis reflects on career

Idaho Falls Fire Chief Dean Ellis is retiring after 30 years with the Idaho Falls Fire Department. He started as a firefighter in 1984 and became chief in 2002.

Sliding down poles, jumping onto a roaring red truck, quelling flames, breaking down doors and savings lives — Fire Chief Dean Ellis lived every boy’s dream.

But firefighting wasn’t a lifelong dream for Ellis, 61.

As a child, he played with toy fire trucks. But when it came time to pick a career, Ellis decided to become a finish carpenter. It wasn’t until 1983 after eight years of carpentry that a buddy convinced him to look into firefighting. He started his career with the Idaho Falls Fire Department in 1984.

Thirty years later, Ellis is about to close a large chapter of his life — one filled with camaraderie and adrenaline. He retires Friday.

Throughout his career, Ellis experienced the kind of horrific events that you don’t share with the family over dinner. But there also are plenty of fond memories as well.

“You’re helping the public,” Ellis said. “People appreciate when an ambulance or fire truck pulls up.”

‘Some things you just don’t talk about’

Ellis fell in love with getting away from a desk and doing something new and exciting each day.

Getting a call at 2 a.m. and jumping for the fire pole pushed his heart to 100 beats per minute, he said. That adrenaline rush was fueled, in large part, by the danger that awaited Ellis, his crew and those in harm’s way.

One of the calls he cannot forget involved an 8-year-old boy. The boy was riding his bicycle and made a left turn into a friend’s driveway. But the child forgot to check for traffic behind him. He was struck by a car.

“When we got there he was in bad shape,” Ellis said. “He was obviously dead on arrival, but we worked him (anyway). My youngest was 8 years old. I looked at that little child and the first thing I did when I got back to the station was call home and ask to talk to my little boy. You want that comforting feeling that your child is all right, even though you just saw one expire.”

When Ellis first became a firefighter, the stress of the job weighed on him. But over time it pulled him closer with his fellow firefighters. Often, the crew would gather around the kitchen table to discuss the traumatic events they had encountered.

“The general public would think we are pretty morbid, but it is a way of relieving stress,” Ellis said. “I have a very supportive wife, but there are some things you just don’t talk about. It helps to be able to vent that to someone.”

A leader who cares for others

After nine years as a firefighter, Ellis was prompted to captain. In 2002, he became the city’s fire chief.

As Ellis rose through the ranks, he said he routinely sought advice from Craig Lords, the city’s former municipal services director.

“When he became the chief, he always had an insightful way of dealing with problems without getting worked up,” Lords said. “He was kind of reserved and just a thoughtful guy who stayed out of the limelight. But he kind of stood out as someone who cared for others. He was a leader. The city is going to lose a good man.”

When he became chief, the promotion pulled him out of the firehouse and put him behind a desk. The only time he went out on fire calls was to assist with the news media.

“Instead of being one of the good ‘ol boys, you gotta keep the good ‘ol boys in line,” Ellis said. “You become one of the ‘other guys.’ That was probably the hardest transition.”

Ellis misses the excitement — breaking down doors and charging into fires with his buddies.

“I have enjoyed coming to this job every day I’ve been here, but that’s the fun part,” Ellis said. “There’s not many adrenaline rushes sitting down in this office.”

Promotion brings changes

When he became chief, Ellis said the transition was rough. He had to assume authority over the department. Suddenly, he was reporting to the mayor and council, as well as keeping track of the firefighters. He no longer was just one of the guys. That camaraderie was replaced with more political responsibilities.

“You’re the boss and you’ve got to be consistent,” Ellis said. “I’ve got guys that I like better than some of the others. You can’t treat your friend better than you treat the (other) guy.”

Division Chief Brad Pettingill, who started at the fire department a year before Ellis, didn’t notice a change in Ellis. Rather, he said, Ellis exhibited the same strong qualities throughout his career.

“Whether we were on the ambulance together or he was my boss, I always knew I could count on him,” Pettingill said.

Ready to for new challenge

Ellis will take the weekend off and then open a new chapter in his life Monday — his first day on the job as the new fire service training program planner at Eastern Idaho Technical College. He’s been packing up his city office this week — a task he found much more difficult than he originally thought.

But he’s ready to move on.

“Each day it gets closer and closer, but I have never thought, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” he said. “This is something that I need to do, and it’s time.”