TONASKET – Michael Greene and his wife retired to Tonasket last November hoping to focus their efforts on doing volunteer work in the community.
That all changed when EMS director (and Tonasket Elementary principal) Jeff Cravy resigned this spring. Suddenly, the Greenes’ new community needed a new EMS director.
And Greene, with 37 years of experience in fire and EMS service, was a man in the right place at the right time to fill the position.
“My goal was to be able to volunteer in the community,” Greene said. “The position I see as another opportunity to help the community. I didn’t come up here going, ‘Gee, I want to be the Tonasket EMS director.’ I was very happy with Jeff being the director. I was very disappointed that he’s leaving. I’d only asked what I could do to help.”
Greene had been volunteering for three or four paramedic shifts a month with Lifeline in Omak “to keep my skills up,” he said.
The timing might have been a bit of a coincidence, but the Greenes’ desire to move to Tonasket was not. As they prepared for retirement, Barbara Greene spent countless hours researching a place to retire.
“My wife’s job was to search through Oregon and Washington to find the right combination of things for us,” Greene said. “She’s very interested in permaculture and organic farming, and there is a lot of that in this community.
“We also wanted someplace rural where we could fit in, with a lot of community involvement. My goal was for her to come up with a ‘top three,’ and then I’d go have a look. She did a huge amount of research, everything from the sense of community to the soil conditions and water levels.”
The Greenes, who have two adult sons, bought their property with plans of gradually putting in infrastructure and a home.
That all changed last fall when Michael had a heart attack.
“Boom, my career got cut short with a near-fatal cardiac even that got solved with a pacemaker,” he said. “We decided we’d move up here early, and I really like the community.”
At the time, Greene was in his fourth year as the Sierra Fire Protection District fire chief, in Reno, Nevada. But with a fire/EMS department that included 66 paid employees and 120 volunteers, as well as the stresses of strapped finances resulting from Nevada’s deep recession, it was time to accelerate the retirement plans.
Prior to his final stint in Reno, Greene, who estimates he’s been out on approximately 30,000 calls in his career, served a variety of positions in Western Washington.
He owned an EMS consulting and training company that he ran from 1984-94 and was a firefighter and paramedic for eight years in Olympia, where he met Barbara.
He took over as assistant fire chief in Belfair, a town of about 6,000 on the Kitsap Peninsula about 20 miles from Bremerton/Port Orchard, in 1991. He was promoted to fire chief there within a few years. During his tenure as chief, the department won six state management excellent awards and one national award for management excellence. He left for Reno in 2007 after being sold on the position by some old friends at a reunion.
“I’m a big believer in making the fire department a big part of the community,” Greene said. “I think the pillars of the community are the fire department/EMS, police, churches, schools and service clubs. One of the things I work at is forming community partnerships and encouraging community participation. And volunteers are very effective force multipliers.”
Greene’s interest in EMS dates back to his high school days, when he and his family encountered a serious auto accident while on vacation.
“I had the presence of mind,” he said. “But I didn’t have the skill set. When we got home I went back to my local fire department asked if I could learn First Aid.
“They said not really, but I got a group of my friends together, they taught us First Aid and we became cadets and volunteered in that fire department.”
He went on to college in San Diego and earned his history degree with the intent of moving on to law school, while working through school fighting wildfires for the government.
“When I got ready to graduate…I thought, you know, I sure enjoyed the fire department more than I would arguing with people all day,” he said. “So I took a position in the fire department and it’s been my career ever since.”
He spent his first five years after school as one of the first paramedics in northern Nevada. Greene moved to Washington after surviving an airplane crash that killed everyone else on board.
“I was the only survivor,” he said. “We had gone on a medical flight to pick up a patient and crashed coming in in a snowstorm. I broke my back and broke my ribs, had to crawl out to the highway and marked my way to the highway with debris.
“The nurse that was with me died the next day, and we had just changed seats a couple of seconds before the impact. I thought, you know, I’ve been working here so hard for so long, it’s time to make a change.
“And that’s what first took me to Washington even though I didn’t know anyone.”
Now, while taking over in Tonasket, Greene has already started planning for the future, including a levy renewal election coming up in 2014.
“I really enjoy helping develop future planning,” he said. “I’ve interviewed all of our volunteers and identify what I see as some organizational needs to help develop some strategic plans. We’re forming an idea of what we want our EMS to look like in five years.
“We’re in a reactive business, but I like to be proactive. I like working with the community and advisory board and decision makers to see what we can do to enhance our service.”
And as he has in the past, Greene plans on emphasizing community involvement as he looks to the future of the department.
“We need more volunteers, and there’s a lot of ways people can help out other than on the front lines,” he said. “We’re looking to things like fundraising for education, an EMS support group, I’d like to add IV training. Covering 1,600 square miles is a big burden.”
Greene said, for example, that he’s excited about a new group of EMTs in the Aeneas Valley.
“They just completed their course,” he said. “I’m very excited about that. I’m looking forward to working cooperatively with them to reduce our response times to that area.”