By Rusty Bradshaw
Sun City Fire Chief Mike Thompson wanted to work for a railroad. After nearly 39 years as a firefighter, he will get his chance, if only in an abbreviated way.
Mr. Thompson will retire this week after 38.5 years in the firefighting profession. While retirement brings some mixed feelings, he has already set his sights on riding the rails. Mr. Thompson hopes to work, part-time, with the Combres and Toltec Scenic Railroad in Colorado.
“Until I got hooked on firefighting, I always wanted to work for a railroad,” Mr. Thompson said. “This will finally give me that chance.”
Working in construction in 1979, Mr. Thompson’s turn to firefighting came after winning a bet with a friend.
“We bet who worked harder, construction workers or firefighters,” Mr. Thompson said.
While he won the bet, the chief will not downplay how hard firefighters work.
“Construction workers work hard all day,” Mr. Thompson said. “A firefighter will work very hard in the first hours of a fire, enough to really suck the energy out of them for a day or two.”
Mr. Thompson’s efforts not just as a firefighter but as leader of the department will be missed. Sun City Fire District board members joke about not accepting his resignation, but in reality it is only partly joking.
“We are really going to miss this man,” Dave Scott, fire board chairman, said in a recent meeting.
Mike Branham, former Youngtown police chief, believes Mr. Thompson’s retirement is the biggest single loss to the community.
“The man is the best fire chief in the Valley,” he said.
Born and raised in the Phoenix area, Mr. Thompson’s hopes to became a railroad engineer were dashed when railroads ceased using cabooses and cut their crews in half. It took three years for him to move 300 notches on the hiring wait list, and he was still 370 notches away.
Nearly Mr. Thompson’s firefighting career has been in Sun City. He started work for Rural Metro Fire Department as a reserve in Scottsdale. In that capacity, he worked at every position in the department, except assistant chief.
“But as a battalion chief, I did a lot of the duties an assistant chief would do,” he explained.
His next move, in 1981, brought him to the West Valley — district chief in the newly formed Fire District of Sun City West. He then served at a one-man station in Litchfield Park then was brought back to Sun City West, serving in what is now Station 133, 13013 N. 111th Ave., Sun City. As part of his duties there, he was fire marshal for Youngtown, working with Mr. Branham. Mr. Thompson developed a fire prevention program that helped stem the tide of multiple high-dollar commercial fire losses. In the first year that was reduced to zero, Mr. Thompson said.
In 1989 he was transferred to Station 131, 17017 N. 99th Ave., Sun City where he wqas temporary fire marshal and administrative chief due to the resignations of Jim Sebert and Steve Morrow who intended to establish a fire districts for Sun City. Mr. Thompson followed after the district was established.
During his Sun City service, Mr. Thompson was a paramedic, hazardous materials paramedic and a truck captain. He never had aspirations of being a department chief.
“The only position I really wanted was as a captain,” he said. “What people care about are this people on the trucks because of the service they provide.”
But Mr. Thompson has seen a lot of growth in the district. Personnel numbers were 26 when the district was formed and now numbers 64. He has also brought the department to a position of financial stability following the 2008 economic downturn. While some of that groundwork was laid by Jim Haner, the only other chief the Sun City department has known, and Mr. Sebert in his last years, it was Mr. Thompson that brought it home.
“I have not hesitated to make the tough decisions,” Mr. Thomspon said. “From a financial standpoint, I ran this department like a business. I spent the money as if it were my own.”
One of his biggest accomplishments was securing ambulance service operated by the department. That fulfilled several goals set for him by the board when he was hired — one chiefly being reducing medical call time. Other goals he accomlished since his 2014 promotion to chief include cleaning up the district’s budgeting process, making changes in the district’s investments, working closer with business partners, revamping the auxiliary, revamping administration, looking for more grants, increasing volunteers, enhancing policies and procedures, re-enforcing the labor/management system, improving equipment, enhancing physical fitness with the department and strengthening the relationship with Youngtown officials.
Retiring has brought a lot of mixed emotions for Mr. Thompson. He has established strong bonds with the Sun City community and residents, but the same is true of New River where he lives.
“I have made and lost a lot of friends here, because this is a geriatric community,” Mr. Thompson said. “There are a lot of amazing people and stories in Sun City.”
He also finds there are still things here he would like to accomplish, but is forced to hold back starting any new ventures.
“That would not be fair to the guy who is replacing me,” Mr. Thompson said.
In addition, for the past 38.5 years his focus has been on preparing each day for what his job requires.
“This has been my entire career, I’ve never had to make such a drastic change, so I’m not sure how to do it,” Mr. Thompson said. “I’m going to wake up Friday morning and not know what to do next.”
There is a good bet he will learn quickly, especially when he hears a train whistle.