Those who worked alongside Tom McDowell remember him as a problem solver. He lived up to that reputation when he spurred the founding of North Country EMS and Clark County Fire District 13, along with the district’s Volcano Rescue Team.
McDowell died Wednesday at 81 years old. He retired in 2018 from nearly five decades in fire and EMS,
Former Fire District 13 Chief Ben Peeler was honored when McDowell handed him the keys to his fire agency in 2011.
When he met McDowell, Peeler was 17 and beginning to explore a career in fire service. Peeler said he considers himself one of hundreds of young people McDowell inspired to become firefighters and paramedics.
“There are so many firefighters across the county that worked with Tom, as young as 16 years old,” Peeler said.
McDowell wasn’t one for titles and often didn’t respond to being called chief, Peeler said. He recalled a time when he called him Chief McDowell on the phone, and McDowell pretended to hand the phone off before answering as Tom, instead.
“I was 17, I didn’t know,” Peeler laughed. “But from then on, he was Tom.”
Prior to his fire and EMS career, McDowell served as the undersheriff at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. In his role, he inspired many who rose through the ranks at the agency.
Sheriff Chuck Atkins still recalls the day in 1977 when he received the phone call from McDowell that he was hiring him as a deputy. Atkins said he was 22 years old and working another job when his boss let him take McDowell’s call. Even his boss knew how badly Atkins wanted to work for the sheriff’s office, he said.
His heart sank when McDowell started the call by saying he had some bad news. But then, Atkins said he learned the bad news was that he was hired.
“When I think of Tom, I think of that phone call,” Atkins said. “And it puts a smile on my face.”
Atkins said he still uses McDowell’s technique sometimes when he gets to hire or promote people. He recognizes the look when their faces drop, only for them to smile when he gets to the point.
Atkins counts himself among the people whose careers were kick-started by McDowell. He always pushed people to do better, and he wasn’t afraid to let them fail sometimes, if it meant they could learn something from it, Atkins said.
“He saw the best in you, even if you didn’t know it,” Atkins said. “There’s a whole segment of us at the sheriff’s office who got our drive and our work ethic from Tom. He made us better so we could make others better, and they’d make others better.”
He also remembers McDowell as someone who never rested.
“He worked more hours than anyone I knew,” Atkins said. “He was always doing something.”
McDowell was known for his commitment to public service and bolstering emergency services for rural Clark County. He retired four years ago from the EMS agency he created in 1976.
McDowell previously told The Columbian he was on his way home from his undersheriff job around 1971 when he responded to a fire in Yacolt. At that point, he said, the town of some 500 people didn’t have much of a fire department. After problems getting the fire truck started, by the time firefighters arrived, the burning chicken coop was destroyed.
Two days later, McDowell got a call from the mayor with an offer to be the new fire chief. He accepted.
Fire District 13 Chief Shaun Ford said he will remember McDowell for his nearly 50 years of service to the community.
“It’s inspiring,” he said. “Almost 50 years of service is amazing and should be applauded.”
Although they didn’t work together for long before McDowell retired, Ford said he’s working to continue McDowell’s legacy. He said everyone at the agency knows McDowell is the reason they’re there.
“No one forgets who created it and why we’re here,” he said. “Tom was always the driving force that saw the need and found a way to create these agencies.”
Jacob Yochim noted that many of those still involved in fire service throughout the county got their start through McDowell.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much he did for so many people, and he wouldn’t want any recognition,” Yochim said.
Yochim, like many others, met McDowell when he was 16 years old and volunteered with North Country EMS and the Volcano Rescue Team. He said some of his best memories came from his time with the agency.
“Clark County lost an icon when Tom passed away,” Yochim said. “To take what they started with, which was nothing, and turn it into the ambulance service they have is amazing. Our community lost a pillar.”
McDowell also mentored Travis Winston. Winston called it a big honor when McDowell pinned his badge on him at his badge ceremony when he was promoted to captain at his current agency of South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue.
McDowell steered his young mentees toward education, particularly at his alma mater, Washington State University. That included Winston and Peeler, who said McDowell drove him to Pullman himself to check out the campus.
Winston will remember McDowell for the time he invested in other people and the ways he’d find a spot for anyone who wanted to help out and learn from him; he hired then-16-year-old Winston to mop the floors at the fire station and clean the engines until he could get enough training to ride along with the paramedics.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t met him and had the opportunities he provided,” Winston said. “And I’m just one of probably thousands he’s helped.”