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Paul Atwater ’95


Without Swarthmore, I would not be a firefighter.

During my sophomore spring break at Reed College in Portland, Ore., I visited some friends at Swarthmore and heard their amazing stories of volunteer firefighting for the borough.

I was intrigued enough to visit the Admissions Office the next day to see if I could arrange a transfer interview. Dean of Admissions Bob Barr ’56 was walking past on his way to lunch. He invited me to join him, we had a great talk, and I entered Swarthmore as a junior transfer student that fall.

I joined the Swarthmore Fire and Protective Association shortly after I arrived on campus. After a month of training, my group was approved to ride on low-risk responses. My first lights-and-sirens call wasn’t a serious incident—we just baby-sat some fallen power lines and kept people away—but I loved it. After graduation, Seattle was the first fire department to hire me … and the rest is history.

When I graduated from Swarthmore, I felt confident that I could learn and handle anything. When I overreached and failed, I kept it all in perspective by reciting the wise words from Orientation that Dean Bob Gross ’62 had shared with a room full of overachievers: “No matter what you say or do to me, I am still a worthwhile person.”

Being at Swarthmore meant being in a demanding environment surrounded by good people with boundless curiosity, a tremendous work ethic, a love of teamwork, and a commitment to making a difference. That’s a good way to live life, and I sought a workplace where I could further hone those qualities myself. (I value those qualities so much that I even married a Swattie, Deb Schaaf ’95, who embodies them in her job as a middle school band director. Adolescents with noise-makers! She’s the brave one.)

I love belonging to the fire service in general and the Seattle Fire Department in particular. When I look around at the people I work with—their service, compassion, ingenuity, humor—I’m constantly inspired to make sure I’m carrying my weight, plus a little more.

As a firefighter, I loved being at the tip of the spear on a well-led team that overcame the adversities of a physically demanding, psychologically stressful job. As I was promoted and assumed greater responsibility for others, I started to appreciate the role that leadership and culture play in a team’s success. Rank has nothing to do with being taught and mentored. I suspect that I learn more from the people in my battalion than they learn from me!

One of the things I love most about my fire department is that it has afforded me the opportunity to work with my hands, as well as with my critical-thinking skills. Fifteen years ago, I taught myself how to be an advocate in arbitration. At the time, I was president of the Seattle Fire Fighters Union, IAFF Local 27. A female firefighter had been suspended without pay for reasons rife with gender bias. The union’s executive board was not inclined to hire her a lawyer because it was too expensive and they weren’t sure we’d win.

It was a worthy cause, though, so I said I would represent her. I devoured books, consulted experts, and acted as if I knew what I was doing. I went up against a city attorney, in front of an arbitrator who was a retired judge, and won. A couple of years later, I volunteered to represent a different female firefighter disciplined for similarly gender-biased reasons, and prevailed again. Where does one learn the confidence (or foolishness) to step into an unfamiliar arena of formal debate against more capable and better prepared opponents? Why, conferences and seminars at Swarthmore, of course.

As a battalion chief, my job is to help my team succeed: getting to know them, drilling, training, talking about life, laughing. Building trust takes time, but it is the most important thing I do.

There’s an organizational component, too. Is our training up to date? Are all the voices of our organization valued? Do we resolve conflicts equitably? Are our people held accountable firmly but respectfully?

Building the systems that reinforce a culture with strong trust is a very different challenge from working my way down a smoky hallway—and I love all of it. At the end of the day, I know I’ve done a good job when the men and women I’ve sent into harm’s way go home safe. On a more practical level, I know I’ve done a good job when I’ve done my job. As a firefighter, I was assigned tasks that were part of a larger plan. When I did those tasks correctly, the plan was more likely to succeed. As I was promoted, I got further away from the nozzles and chainsaws, but I’m at the last rank that still goes inside at a structure fire—no full-time desks for me!


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