The new headquarters for Carson City’s fire department was under construction in September 1993 when firefighters received the 911 call that the station was on fire, local resident Jim Powell recalls.
“There is no such thing as a routine call in our business, but it’s not very often that firefighters are summoned to a fire station fire,” he said.
Powell, then a duty chief with CCFD, and his crew answered with a first-alarm assignment and saw black smoke emanating from the roof. After ensuring all the project’s construction workers had exited the structure safely, he directed the engine companies to mount an offensive attack on the fire. Then-Captain Stacey Giomi, now a supervisor, radioed back to Powell that using only water would be insufficient to clear the blaze. Giomi was trying to use foam water solution instead.
In the end, an investigation into the incident found a plumber’s torch used in proximity to foam insulation caused the fire. The headquarters was relocated to 777 S. Stewart St., Station 51 the following year. Powell praised the firefighters for their performance that day despite damage to the roof, but he remembers the incident well today.
“Yes, indeed, we all took a lot of ribbing for having to put out the fire station fire, so that was unusual,” he said.
Powell’s fire service career spans 50 years in Nevada, battling blazes firsthand and witnessing devastation in a variety of environments. He served years assisting in incident management in an active capacity, but many of his contributions to the community and the state more often have been off the ladder. Inevitably, Powell stopped chasing the fires and started pursuing the next able bodies who could keep up the physical work so he could make the next men and women better.
He considers himself fortunate to have worked his way up the ranks from a chaser with Warren Engine Co. to operations battalion chief with CCFD in 1997. But it’s in serving as a consultant to Nevada’s rural districts in need of improved technical and tactics training for volunteers that he’s found his true calling in recent years, he described through stories of fires, accident scenes, academy training and reflections on his 50 years in Nevada.
“It’s a dangerous business,” he said. “But you’ve got to be able to do it. You’ve got to be able to manage the risks, and if you understand fire and you understand the risks and you understand the manpower schemes that go with it, then you can much better manage an incident in terms of life safety for firefighters.”
Powell was influenced early in life to enter firefighting living in Napa County, Calif., where his father served as a resident dispatcher for the California Division of Forestry in St. Helena. He spent time with the CDF’s seasonal crews, calling them “real inspiring” and remembering how they’d joke with each other, including him in their interactions but always taking their business seriously, he said.
“That kind of stuck with me for a real long time in my younger years,” he said.
He moved to Carson City in 1967 to build wire and cable reels and finally was voted into the Warren Engine Co. 1 as a member the next year, but learning the basics wasn’t so easy.
“They kind of tested you with that chaser program,” he said. “Warren was pretty well respected in the city and had a lot of clout with the Board of Supervisors.”
Powell’s official entry into the Carson City Fire Department came in 1969 and he gradually climbed the ranks. In a full career of encountering fires on scene, Powell would see firsthand where Northern Nevada’s small departments did things right on their limited resources, but he also found opportunities to improve incident management. He’s also not only seen dramatic changes but helped to shape many policies even as technology evolved around local crews. Powell once fought fires on his hands and knees whereas today, he said, they use thermal imaging to detect people in structures or in an environment before proceeding directly to assist in rescues.
“Smarter heads prevailed, certainly not me as being the sole benefactor, but people like me who realized what was going on decided that there was a better way to manage incidents than we were doing, so I’m going out on a limb and saying that some incident commanders … back in the day were willing to apply more risks,” Powell said. “No firefighter death is a good number by any stretch of the imagination. But we’ve gone down to about 100 a year and 50 of those are happening in the trainings, responding to and returning from alarms, so that’s significant.”
He would meet incoming employees in the 1980s and ’90s such as Giomi.
“Regionally, I don’t think you’ll find anyone who has the breadth of experience in the variety of firefighter fields (that Powell has),” Giomi said. “That isn’t just within the municipal department here in Carson, where he ultimately retired.”
Giomi said Powell always took on a mentor role in his management.
“I think things were a little more raw then,” Giomi recalled. “There was more instruction via on-the-job training. A new guy would learn from a seasoned veteran. It wasn’t so much book learning as it was learning by example. … And you hear people use the phrase ‘a student of the game’ in reference to baseball, and that describes someone who’s lived it and has really studied the intricacies of it and gotten to know the nuances of the job, and that’s what I really picked up from Jim Powell.
“It’s more than what’s in the book. It’s time, that experience to learn the technical aspect and to observe the human aspect of the job that ultimately made me a better firefighter.”
Powell would respond to more than 17,000 calls in the course of his career, many of which involved graphic levels of destruction. Debriefing sessions after critical incidents were limited for firefighters. He recalled a T-bone auto accident in which two civilians were rescued out of one car but one fatality from another. Powell described the mental stress the results of that accident had on him afterward.
“The more bodies piled up, I couldn’t sort them out,” he said. “I started having nightmares, and those calls were with children the same age as yours. They started affecting me. … I couldn’t share it with my wife, I couldn’t share it with anyone. Over time, I finally figured out how to mentally park the bodies in my head. … And somebody has passed away, but you still have empathy for the family.”
In time, Powell’s body would prevent him from climbing the ladder anymore. He retired from CCFD as chief of operations in August 1997, leaving with 30 years of active suppression experience and directing his skills as a consultant toward other Northern Nevada departments and organizations. He founded All Clear Fire Training and Consulting that same month and developed a mentorship program to help others who wanted to progress to the rank of battalion chief, captain or fire chief. He’s become a highly recognized instructor and was appointed by former Gov. Kenny Guinn in 2000 to serve on the state Board of Fire Service Standards and Training Committee and has published a number of articles, including for international magazine Fire and Rescue.
He’s also served as a past chief of the Truckee Meadows Community College Fire Academy through which thousands of firefighters and students have taken courses and continue their training today.
Scott Fraser, a battalion chief with the East Fork Fire Protection District in Minden, took classes at the academy in 1991. Powell has been one of a number of his instructors but said he stood out because he could be “really intimidating” at first.
“You know, he’s a pretty big guy … and I’m a big guy, I’m about 6 foot 5 … and Jim and I see eye to eye on a lot of things, and it was funny to see guys of smaller statute, when they were in front of him, start to freak out,” Fraser said. “And he has such a commanding presence and he totally uses it to his advantage and he backs off when he needs to.”
But for Fraser, Powell’s sense of discipline and ability to relate to others brings something to the field that for others learning about it now say is lacking as they try to figure out more modern means of firefighting.
“I’m in a class this week about running incident management teams and all week, one of the things we’ve been complaining about is such a lack of up-and-coming leaders to replace us,” Fraser said. “(We are) sorely without more Jims in the world and others taking these younger guys and trying to give them what they need and download that information to these new guys so they can use that going forward.”
Giomi said Powell’s steadfast nature in dangerous situations was critical as he recounted a fire at an apartment complex where approximately eight vehicles in a carport were burning and the firefighters were extinguishing the flames of the buildings themselves.
“We started hearing some really loud explosions ... and (Jim) grabbed me,” Giomi said. “He stopped me from moving forward — actually, we backed up a little bit — and we found out later ... the low-impact bumpers that had shock absorbers were heating up — the front bumpers on those cars, the hydraulics were exploding ... and would have literally taken the legs out from underneath us. That’s just an instance where his experience in literally the heat of battle was invaluable from being seriously injured in the late ’80s.”
In 2011, when Powell was nominated by the Nevada State Firemen’s Association to be placed on the Distinguished portion of the Nevada Firefighters Wall, Giomi provided a letter of recommendation and listed a number of his achievements. Powell was awarded “Distinguished” status from the NSFA’s board of directors.
“There’s a sense of calm you get from working with a seasoned professional like Jim, from understanding that they’ve seen it,” Giomi said. “They’ve been around the block and they watch out for you and the public you’re serving and that’s comforting for you as a new guy, that shoulder to lean on so you can not only learn but mature to turn and some day give that back. And that’s what Jim has personified.”
Today, Powell continues to offer his expertise in incident command classes and invites any Nevada firefighters to attend, and he’s currently working on other projects. He’s currently working on a book, “Sirens They Never Heard,” detailing his perspectives on human survival and death as he witnessed while serving on active duty and offering his thoughts on the fire service in the past and what it’s like today as well as how CCFD entered the ambulance service. He also writes plans, offers depositions after incidents and flies to North Carolina or Maryland to offer his expertise.
Now, Powell is battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a type of cancer that impacts white blood cells, or lymphocytes, that help the body fight infections. CLL patients typically have an abnormally high amount of these white blood cells that don’t function properly. That diagnosis came in 2010, but he also has had other health issues related to his thyroid and spleen as precursors to the cancer, all of which came about after he departed from the fire service, he said.
But he keeps going, he said, and he’s proud of many things, including that he never once had a firefighter fatality on the job.
“People got hurt, and I didn’t like any of that ... but I learned I have to manage the risk,” he said. “I’m proud of the job that (the crews) did on a lot of other incidents. I used to teach, still do today, that ... if you look first and can anybody be alive in there and if the answer is yes, by all means commit everything you’ve got to that, then go in there and search it. If not, you need to consider going defensive.”
Powell said his career overall has been highly satisfying and he reflects on it without regrets.
“I was tested, and I made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “I learned, I think, I’m very much at peace with teaching now and teaching what I consider to be the right way. I think, to sum it up, the journey’s the reward. From the first day you get in the fire service and you’ve got the polished boots and a big smile on your face and you don’t know anything to this point here, the reward has been the journey itself and its ups and downs. It’s a roller coaster ride, the depths of despair that you get for losing somebody to a life you can save to the joy of having a baby delivered or cardioverting someone back to life. It’s the journey.”