New fire chief comes out of retirement, five decades after the start of his career

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage's new fire chief began his career with the department five decades ago, when the city had just four stations, compared to today's 13.

Early on, John Fullenwider spent a year working at Station 4, at Lake Otis Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard. Firefighters often talk about how their department is one big family, and at Station 4 that was the case especially -- because at the time Fullenwider served there, it was actually a house.

"Like, a 'house' house," Fullenwider said. "With a big garage attached to it."

Fullenwider, who laughed and declined to answer when asked his age, will take over as chief on May 12, 51 years after the start of his Anchorage firefighting career in 1963. Public records show that he is 74.

Chris Bushue, who currently holds the department's top job, will step down to battalion chief, supervising several stations -- a change that he requested primarily to allow him more time with his family, he said.

In a written statement provided to media Thursday afternoon, Mayor Dan Sullivan praised both men.

"Chief Bushue has been an incredible asset and administrator for over 25 years. I'm confident that he will continue to serve the department well, and I thank him for his service to Anchorage," Sullivan said. "The citizens within the Municipality of Anchorage are fortunate. We'll draw from Chief John Fullenwider's experience as a seasoned public safety professional."

In a phone interview, Fullenwider said he was in California when he got a call from Sullivan, who asked if Fullenwider, a former fire chief who had been retired since 2006, would be willing to return.

"And I said yes, probably before I thought about it," said Fullenwider, who was a member of Sullivan's mayoral transition team. "I've known the mayor for many years, and his father before him. He's a good man, he's a good mayor, he's a good friend. Quite honestly, I was very honored."

Sullivan's father, George Sullivan, was city mayor for a total of 14 years in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

The fire chief oversees one of the largest city departments, with 375 employees and a $90 million annual budget, which is nearly 20 percent of Anchorage's total spending plan. The department responds to both fires and medical emergencies.

Fullenwider said that he will remain chief for as long as Dan Sullivan remains mayor. Sullivan is running for lieutenant governor; if elected, he would take office in December.

Otherwise, Fullenwider would keep his job until July of 2015, as term limits bar Sullivan from running for re-election.

Fullenwider will be paid wages equivalent to $114,000 annually. He will not receive benefits, and the city will not make contributions toward his retirement equal to one fifth of his salary, like it has been for Bushue, according to Nancy Usera, the city's employee relations director.

However, Fullenwider will continue receiving his pension from his past work for the city, though he declined to specify its value beyond saying that it's "sufficient." Usera referred questions about Fullenwider's pension to the state; an employee at Alaska's Division of Retirement and Benefits would not provide any information.

Since his retirement in 2006, Fullenwider said that he has "not done a thing."

"I've done a lot of fishing in Soldotna. We've been wintering out here in California," he said, adding that he would remain in Anchorage for the length of his employment.

Fullenwider said he did not expect any problems when he takes over the department, in spite of his eight years away.

"I had a lot of good people there that I know, and that I trust, that are in the administration right now," he said. "If I should need some help, I am sure that I will get it."

Fullenwider said he did not plan on making any changes to the department, though he anticipates some challenges.

One, he said, was the announcement this week that the firm responsible for picking up inebriates from city streets would be opting out of its contract later this year. If the city can't find a competent replacement, firefighters and police could find their hands full aiding intoxicated people, Fullenwider said.

Another challenge is the expiration of city's labor contract with the firefighters union at the end of the year.

That contract is also a concern for Bushue, he said in an interview Friday. He said he has been advocating several key changes to staffing and equipment, and was worried whether they would still be pushed through.

"I'm concerned that some of those key points may be lost," Bushue said.

Bushue added that he did have confidence in Fullenwider's capability.

"The best thing about my stepping down is knowing that he's coming in behind me," he said.

Bushue will replace a battalion commander who is leaving the city to become a pastor in Tennessee, according to a spokeswoman for Sullivan.

Because Bushue will switch to 24-hour shifts, his salary will actually climb slightly, to $113,509 from $113,214.

The move will allow Bushue to spend more time with his daughter, who is entering a graduate program, he said.

Another factor in his decision, he added, was a contentious relationship he had with other city departments. He declined to identify the departments.

"I couldn't ask for a better boss," Bushue said, referring to George Vakalis, the city manager.

"Other city departments have just been exceedingly difficult to work for," he added. "That gets really difficult after a while, when you can't accomplish things or do things because of people obstructing what you're trying to do."

In a brief interview late Friday, Sullivan responded: "Certainly none of our departments are obstructionists."

"We require accountability both to myself, internally, and of course to the taxpayers," he said. "These jobs aren't easy jobs. We're running large departments in a large city, so sometimes there can be those kinds of conflicts."

In an unsigned press release issued Friday, the city firefighters union said that it welcomed Fullenwider back to the department.

But the union also had its own concerns.

Bushue was awarded his new position without a competitive process, depriving some of the department's lower-ranking members of a shot at advancement, union Vice President Eric Tuott said in a brief interview.

And, the release noted, Fullenwider will be the city's fourth chief in the last five years.

"It is difficult for the Municipality to formulate and achieve long-term goals if there are constantly changes at the highest levels," the release said.

Sullivan responded that he would request a meeting with the union next week to hear its concerns about Bushue's new role in greater detail. If the union makes a good case, he added, "we may agree to look at that assignment a little more closely."

As for turnover in the department's leadership, Sullivan said that the union's statement about the department's long-term goals was "pretty vague."

"I think they'd have to be a little bit more specific about what those goals might be," he said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.