Dennis Doan 

Fire chief on stairs, smarts and "sleepless knights"

Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan comes from good stock. His great-grandmother traveled in a covered wagon from Oklahoma to Idaho. His great-grandfather, a mason, helped build the Idaho Statehouse. His grandfather was also a mason, as was his father. But Doan broke the mold. In 1988 he had a part-time moving job. He hauled boxes and couches with some other part-timers--three Boise firefighters--who encouraged him to take the written test to become a fireman. Nine months later, Doan got the call to take a physical and suit up. Following training, Doan joined the Boise Fire Department. At 21, he was one of the youngest on the line.

Do you remember your first critical event?

Believe it or not, it was my first day on the job. I had two structure fires, a grass fire, a woman sliced her arm open in an accident and then we responded to a gunshot to the head. At the end of my shift, I called my dad and said, "This is exciting, but I'm wondering if I can keep up this pace for 30 years."

Do you still recall some of your toughest days on the line?

I can still picture mothers handing me their babies who died of SIDS. I can even remember the smell of the scene. Watching little kids get hurt or die, those were the most difficult.

What firehouses have you worked in?

I worked almost exclusively, for more than 15 years, at Station No. 5 on S. Sixth Street. I was a firefighter, a driver and the captain there. That's the busiest house in the state of Idaho. The unofficial names for the firefighters are the "Sleepless Knights."

How many calls a year do they respond to?

About 2,400 to 2,600 a year.

How many calls are there department-wide in a year?

About 22,000.

I notice that you have quite a few photographs with some dignitaries on your wall.

Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Gov. Cecil Andrus. I was the union president for the State Professional Firefighters Union for many years. That's really how I met many of them.

These are tough days for unions in Idaho and across the nation. What do you make of the recent anti-union fervor?

I'm confused as to why the working people are blamed for something that Wall Street committed. I think we need to stop and look at what caused many of our problems. There are CEOs who are making huge bonuses off of taxpayer bailouts, yet we're tearing down our neighbors. For some reason, blame is being laid on public employees like teachers, firefighters and police officers. I frankly don't understand it.

Can you empathize with Idaho teachers through the current legislative session?

Absolutely. Teachers work so hard and do such a great job. I have a friend who has been out of the teaching profession for a while. She said, "Why would I ever want to get back into teaching?" It's sad.

How big is the fire department?

About 290; 280 of them are firefighters on the line.

What's the mix of men versus women firefighters?

We have only three female firefighters.

Why so low?

When you're a white male firefighter and you're telling your peers that you love your job, we end up attracting more white males. We need a little girl to see a young lady on a fire engine and tell herself that she can do that too someday. But I think during the last firefighters test, we had only seven females.

How difficult is the test?

Very difficult. I read yesterday that it's harder to become a firefighter in this nation than it is to get into an Ivy League School. We give the test every two years in Boise. We had about 1,500 take the test during our last go-around. We hired zero.

Some of your firefighters participated in the recent Seattle Stair Climb.

The event raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. One of our firefighters had a sister with leukemia, so that's how we got involved. We had 31 firefighters travel to Seattle, all on their own dime. They did amazing. Out of 118 teams across the nation, our guys came in fifth. They ran up 69 flights.

On occasion you may see an engine or truck parked outside of the U.S. Bank Building in downtown Boise. You know what they're doing? They're running up and down the stairs as a workout.

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