Friday, July 28, 2006

New fire chief?s past prepares him for future

Elle says he?s up to the challenge

Express Staff Writer

The Ketchum City Council on Friday named Mike Elle as fire chief. He has been with the department for 21 years, and most recently served as interim fire chief after the departure of former Chief Greg Schwab.

In his first 24 hours as Ketchum fire chief, Mike Elle and his department came close to a record number of emergency calls in one day.

On his third day, Elle was knee-deep in paperwork.

The new chief, who has worked his way around the valley—from snow-making and ski patrol at Sun Valley Co., to the restaurant industry, all the way up the ranks in the KFD—says he's up to the challenge.

"I learned from a multitude of other types of work that are challenging, adrenaline (producing)," he said. "Ski patrol gives you a lot of patient contact—hands-on patient care in a different environment."

The Ketchum City Council on Friday named Elle, 44, as chief of fire and emergency medical services. He served as interim chief after the departure of former Chief Greg Schwab in April.

As chief, Elle is responsible for building-permit plan checks and writing the fire and ambulance budgets. He is also responsible for responding to medical emergencies, fires and floods for the city of Ketchum and Ketchum Rural Fire District.

Like many kids, Elle wanted to be a cop. A fiery spectacle in the mid-1980s changed his mind forever.

While training in Portland, Ore., to become a police officer, Elle took a year off to indulge himself skiing on Bald Mountain.

"I had 121 days the first season and decided I wasn't going back," he said.

That year, Elle was strolling in Ketchum when he looked up to see a conflagration on Giacobbi Square. Atkinsons' Market was engulfed in flames.

"I said, I think I know what I want to do with the rest of my life," he recalled. "It's all adrenaline, and always wanting to help people and give back to the rest of the world for what they gave to me."

He started with on-call status with the Sun Valley Fire Department. A year later he found a position in Ketchum.

"I progressed through the ranks as squad leader," he said. In 1993, he was hired full time as engineer/EMT.

Despite the rush of adrenaline that keeps the job exciting, there are difficult situations and wrenching scenes.

"Kids are the hardest," he said. "Dealing with medical calls and fires with hurt or injured kids."

To deal with the emotional aspects of the job, Elle exercises and calls on his experience in critical incident stress debriefings, which help other agencies deal with trauma.

Although his is a non-partisan, non-elected position, politics plays a part.

"The politics of the job cause me to have to spend a lot more time thinking about how to handle certain situations," he said. "It's always for the better. You have to take your time making decisions, except in emergencies, and think about the implications of your decisions."

Elle says much of what he knows about administration is due to a former boss.

"I attribute a lot of where I'm at to (Ketchum Fire Chief) Tom Johnson's mentoring," he said. "I'd been involved in the budget a little bit. Having grown with the department, I understand what we need and where we need it and what I can ask for and what probably isn't going to happen."

What may happen in the Fire Department's future is what Elle calls a "reorganization." That could mean a merger with Sun Valley Fire Department.

"I foresee that as probably going to happen," he said. "We already work very closely together."

Tackling the affordable housing issue as well as problems that have sprouted up in consolidating dispatch services are also on Elle's agenda.

"Some equipment is in," he said, "but there have been a lot of equipment failures. Right now, it appears dispatch is not working as well as before (consolidation) started."

Whether trouble-shooting or offering praise to staff, Elle's objective remains the same.

"The challenge I'm looking forward to here is to improve the level of service over and above the excellent service we already provide," he said. "That's my whole goal."

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