Making a difference
It would be easy to let Columbus Fire Chief Rich Cowger’s casual style, quick smile and calm voice lull you into thinking there’s not much more on his plate beyond his duties running Columbus Fire Rescue.
As evidenced by his recent win of a national fire service leadership award, Cowger’s passion for his profession – as well as his abilities – run deep.
Last month, the 45-year-old was presented with the John M. Buckman III Leadership Award at the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) VCOS Symposium in the Sun in Clearwater, Fla.
The award recognizes a chief officer of a volunteer or combination department who stands out on the local and/or regional level as a true professional who has demonstrated leadership, integrity and outstanding moral values within the fire service.
The IAFC represents the leadership of firefighters and emergency responders worldwide who are experts in fire fighting, emergency medical services, terrorism response, hazardous materials spills, natural disasters, search and rescue and public safety legislation.
Cowger said he learned of the award two weeks before the symposium.
“I was very surprised. I had no idea,” said Cowger.
Red Lodge Fire Rescue Chief Tom Kuntz nominated Cowger through a letter that outlined his history and accomplishments in Stillwater County, as well as on the regional and national level that describe his “passion for improving the fire service both at a local, state and national level,” according to Kuntz’s nomination letter.
Originally from Wyoming, Cowger entered the fire service in 1991 as a volunteer for the Fromberg Fire District. He moved to Columbus and joined that department in 1993, progressing through the ranks to become chief in 1999. In 2008, he became the Columbus Fire Department’s first full-time chief and chief of the Rural Fire District in 2000.
In 2008 Cowger helped negotiate a consolidation agreement between Columbus and the Rural Fire District, bringing the only fire-based EMS service to Stillwater County. He was also instrumental in getting a joint city/rural fire station built in 2002 and again in 2009, as well as playing a key role in getting an inter-local agreement signed between the city of Columbus and the Rural Fire District resulting in the much improved consolidation of fire and EMS.
Currently, Cowger is spearheading an effort to establish an ambulance district that would service much of the county and provide funding to maintain the current five paid staff positions.
Cowger’s passion and abilities have reached beyond the local level. Kuntz wrote that Cowger was able to “successfully lead our State Fire Chiefs Association just one year after a split between the volunteer and career chiefs.”
“During his time as chair, not only has he been able to rebuild and restructure the entire organization to represent all of Montana’s fire service, he has brought volunteer, career and combination chiefs together to work to improve the association and the Montana fire service as a whole,” wrote Kuntz.
In the area of training, Cowger has been instrumental in obtaining and administering a statewide grant for firefighter leadership and large incident management training.
As a result, Kuntz said thousands of firefighters have received “professional high level and management training.”
Cowger also serves as the chairman of the Stillwater County Fire Council, is a deputy Stillwater County Fire Warden and has served as the chairman of the Montana State Fire Chiefs Association for the last six years.
He also sits on the state Wildland Committee, the Eastern Montana Zone Bard, the International Association of Fire Chiefs Wildland Fire Policy Committee and is “red-carded” as a structure protection specialist with a Type 2 incident management team as well as being a “red-card” liaison officer with a Type 2 team. Cowger is also active in the Western Fire Chief’s Association, the IAFC and VCOS.
Columbus Rural Fire District Board member Curt Robbins described Cowger as very growth-oriented, foresightful, knowledgeable with grants and credited him largely with the merger of the EMS and fire service, as well as being well-respected in the industry.
“It’s good to have someone like that in our corner,” said Robbins. “He’s chosen to stay here and raise his family.”
PUBLIC SERVICE BUG
Growing up, several of Cowger’s friends fathers were volunteers. His own interest was piqued when living with relatives in Fromberg and his former employer was the assistant chief in Laurel.
“I was at a relative’s house when a EMS call came in to the neighbor and I sat there and watched them and thought that it was pretty cool to be able to help others,” said Cowger.
It is a job with many challenges. The most difficult is watching the reactions of families who tragically loose a loved one, said Cowger.
“Whether you know them or not it is gut wrenching each and every time. That never has gotten even remotely easier. Obviously when you have lived and worked in a small town for so many years there really are very few strangers. Some you know better than others but still you ‘know of them’,” said Cowger.
Also difficult is seeing people suffer destruction or losses.
The most satisfying aspect of the job is “the reality is we know we make a difference in people lives, not all the time but we do make a difference,” said Cowger.
And a simply “thank you” goes a long way for those in emergency services.
The most frustrating part of the job is the politics.
“And we aren’t special here anymore than any other agency. It’s just having an understanding of what a good service model looks like, being intimately involved with it and then having folks who don’t have quite the same understanding ‘know better’,”said Cowger.