South Whidbey says goodbye to Chief Palmer

— Created April 6, 2022 by Kathy Reed

By Sherrye Wyatt/For South Whidbey Fire/EMS

South Whidbey Fire/EMS has bid farewell to Chief H.L. “Rusty” Palmer, who retired last week following a 46-year career devoted to serving the community – the last 12 years on south Whidbey.

When Palmer was young, his parents taught him that a life of service is the most rewarding way to live. Both of his parents led by example. In fact, his father served in the Army for 40 years, and was a volunteer firefighter.

“When I was young and first told my father that I was going to live in town, he said ‘You don’t want to live in a town, that’s just buildings and streets. You want to live in a community, where people take care of each other, watch out for each other, and serve each other,’” he said. “So I joined the Jackson Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter/EMT in 1976.”

That Wyoming department merged with four others to become the Jackson-Teton County Fire Department. He quickly rose through the ranks and was hired as a fire inspector. Concurrently, he was the director of Teton County Emergency Medical Services, prior to it merging with the fire department. He also flew as part of the medical crew with Jackson Hole Air Ambulance from 1984-1998.

Palmer was fire chief of Jackson Hole Fire/EMS until 2010, when he and his wife, Suzi Prentiss, moved to Whidbey Island.

In the fall of 2009, he tested for fire chief in five different locations in the northwest, including south Whidbey Island. 

“We had our ‘Titanic moment’ on the bow of the ferry. As soon as we drove onto the island that was pretty much it. We were hooked.” said Palmer.

His wife has been on this journey with him for a long time. She started as a driver with the same ambulance system in 1990 and became an EMT-I soon after. In 2000, she became an emergency room nurse and worked for the regional hospital in Jackson and served as one of the board of directors for Teton County Emergency Services. She is now licensed as an active retired nurse by Washington Department of Health and practices Ayruvedic (ancient Indian) medicine. She is also a Washington board certified reflexologist, with her own business.

Looking back over the past 12 years

“I am most proud of the members of the organization that have given of themselves to serve our community,” Palmer said. “It takes special people to be able to do that, volunteer or career, and they reflect the best of the community.  I’m proud of the efforts our members take to respond to our ever-growing call volume.”

The department has not had a major firefighter injury or death, nor has it had a citizen death from a fire, and only a few serious injuries during Palmer’s tenure.

“Our community has been very generous with us in providing the financial support we need to serve them. In our history, the 2012 and 2020 levy lifts are the only ones we have needed,” he said.

The Bayview station was the last project in the 2007 Strategic Plan that had to be accomplished.  It took 11 years to complete the entire process.  In order to accomplish this, the department sold a bond to pay for it.  Due to the financial process and position, South Whidbey Fire/EMS is now rated as an AA Investment Grade by Standard and Poor’s (S&P).

“We have had a great deal of change in the last 12 years and I believe we have managed the majority of it very well,” Palmer continued.

The department’s response to the pandemic required more change than any other significant issue. The team weathered the storm well.

“Having staff on duty to respond to calls 24/7 has taken a big time burden off of our volunteers’ shoulders,” he said. “Even then, we have volunteers that spend time on duty with the career staff, on a pretty regular basis.”

Palmer is proud of the relationships the department has built with partner agencies (other fire departments, Whidbey Health EMS, ICSO, Langley PD, and more.). 

“No agency can do this job alone and these partnerships make our communities safer,” he said.

Looking forward to retirement

An avid gardener, Palmer loves digging in the dirt and watching the landscape grow. He also plans to spend time woodworking and traveling, plus will continue serving on the Hearts and Hammers board of directors. With four grown children, five grandchildren and one great-grandson, he and Suzi are determined to see them more often.  

“After 46 years I’m looking forward to not having a pager, carrying two phones, or having half of my closet taken up by my uniforms. It will be quite a change, but spending more time with my lovely wife and our golden retriever, Moksha, is so exciting” he said.

Nicholas Walsh has been selected by fire commissioners as the next fire chief for South Whidbey Fire/EMS. He begins his duties Saturday.