Jim Kambeitz still remembers when the Portland Fire Bureau visited his grade school to talk about fire prevention.
“That had a big impact on me,” Kambeitz, 50, said at Longview’s fire station on Commerce Avenue Thursday. “I remember that when I think about the prevention work we do here: the public relations work that really has a big impact on people and a lot on our students.”
Kambeitz spent most of his career in fire prevention until last week, when Longview City Manager Kurt Sacha appointed him fire chief to replace former chief Phil Jurmu, who stepped down to become the director of Cowlitz County’s new 911 emergency communications agency.
“I think Jim will do excellent,” Jurmu told The Daily News Thursday. “He’s very professional. He’s highly ethical and his integrity is very strong. He has a lot of experience in the organization and the emphasis of his background being on prevention in general will help the organization move in a direction of being more proactive.”
Kambeitz already has plans to improve recruitment, increase emergency medical service and potentially add another fire station.
He has been interim fire chief since Jurmu left in September. Before that, he had been Longview’s fire marshal for about 15 years, which involved inspecting new commercial buildings for fire code compliance and determining the causes of fires.
His firefighting career path started much earlier when he was in high school and would ask his uncle, a Portland firefighter, questions about the profession. After high school, Kambeitz attended the University of Hawaii on a basketball scholarship. Multiple injuries and waning interest in playing caused him to return home and earn his associate’s degree in fire science from Portland Community College.
“I had a desire for public service and the fire department was viewed as serve and protect lives and property. That is ultimately why I joined the fire service,” Kambeitz said.
While in school, Kambeitz was a resident firefighter with Clark County Fire District 5. He later became a fire inspector there and was then appointed deputy fire marshal.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University in 2003 and joined Longview as fire marshal that same year.
At 6 feet 9 inches, Kambeitz is a towering presence, but his easy-going demeanor is disarming. He lives in Camas with his wife, Tara, and 10-year-old daughter, Kennedy. He will earn about $133,000 as fire chief.
“Has a magnificent rapport with the staff,” City Manager Sacha said. “I think they respect Jim for his approach to managing fire service. I think he’s progressive in terms of some of the agenda items he has for the upcoming year.”
As fire chief, Kambeitz said he wants to focus on reducing the gap in emergency medical service, planning for capital improvements and creating an internal succession plan.
The Fire Department recently hired four new firefighters, three of whom were funded partially by a federal grant and are also paramedics. Having three more paramedics will mean Longview will increase how often it can staff its ambulance from 25 percent of the time to about 55 percent, Kambeitz said.
The city contracts with AMR for medical transportation services, but sometimes there aren’t enough people to immediately respond to all 911 calls. With more paramedics available, Longview will be able to partially close this gap in service, he said. He’d eventually like to staff the city’s ambulance 100 percent of the time.
Kambeitz already made one major change as interim chief: deploying the ambulance to all medical calls (when available), not just the highest priority calls. Previously, an engine could be stuck at a medical call, waiting for AMR or the city ambulance to respond and transport the patient before it could move on to another call, Kambeitz said. If the ambulance responds right away, then the engine can go back in service.
He is also working on filling two open leadership positions: fire marshal and administrative battalion chief. Only one internal candidate applied for the administrative battalion chief position. “That tells me we need to give succession planning some attention so we have more desire within our ranks to fill those positions.”
He said he’d also like to work an a capital facilities plan to fund upgrades to both stations and eventually add a third station. The Fire Department recently purchased a new ladder truck that is expected to go into service in about a month.
Kambeitz said he didn’t expect to become a fire chief when he started his career, but his good working relationships with the fire crew, other departments and the community will be an asset.
“When people are familiar with you, they trust you (and) they find you reliable and easy to get along with, they want to work with you,” he said. “You get so much more accomplished that way than trying to do it on your own.”
The Fire Department has a $9.4 million budget for 2019, but calls for aid have been rising rapidly, and it will be a challenge to keep up, Kambeitz said. Last year, the fire department’s three units responded to 5,325 calls. That’s an average of five calls per engine per day.
If the City of Longview annexes about 237 acres out west, Kambeitz estimates that will add another 150 to 160 calls a year. He’d like to eventually add a fourth rotation to keep up with increasing calls.
“If it’s already a challenge to keep up with call volumes now, anything you add whether from annual increase or annexations, adds to that workload,” he said.
But former Chief Jurmu says Kambeitz is up to the challenge.
“I just have such a high regard for him. He’s probably the best person I ever worked with in my professional life. I felt so fortunate to be able to have that type of working relationship. We were quite different, but we never ever got sideways. There was a complete and total respect for each other, and I think Jim brings that out in people.”