Meet the New Boss

KPFD Fire Chief Dominick “Nick” Swinhart will start work May 16 unless he can find a place to live on the KP sooner.


Nick Swinhart grew up in Montesano.

“As a paid firefighter I started in Raymond in 1992, but I started before that in 1989 as a volunteer in Grays Harbor. Most of my career was spent at the Aberdeen fire department as a paramedic and firefighter,” he said. “But I was also in the volunteer fire department in Montesano. It was just something to do, for fun.”

Swinhart had planned on becoming a teacher, but instead went to EMT class, then paramedic school at Tacoma Community College, and was hired by Aberdeen.

“In Aberdeen in particular it’s very challenging,” he said. “It’s a very high call volume department, very high poverty level, lots of issues with drugs and alcohol and homelessness. It was a tough place to work but intermixed with that of course was a lot of happiness. I delivered my first baby there. You have years and years of just terrible stuff where you think can’t do this job anymore and all of a sudden you have something so joyous as delivering a baby, and it sort of has the effect of wiping all the bad stuff away and gives you a little more gas in the tank.”

Swinhart has delivered three babies in his career.

He went back to school to get a bachelor’s degree in EMS management from The George Washington University distance learning program based in D.C., and after almost 15 years in Aberdeen Swinhart became fire chief of Watertown, South Dakota in 2009.

“I never thought of winding up in South Dakota, but it was a great opportunity, great people, I loved going out there,” he said. “Our coverage area was 650 square miles. We got stuff like silo fires and corn field fires, and they are very dangerous. And it floods. You get the rivers backing up from ice dams during the spring thaw and that water’s got nowhere to go except out into the neighborhoods.”

After Swinhart’s first daughter was born, the family wanted to be closer to home in Washington (he has two daughters, 8 and 11).

“My parents and family, they’re all still in the Grays Harbor, Thurston County area, so we started looking for ways to get back out this way,” he said.

In 2011, Swinhart became fire chief of Camas. After merging with Washougal, he had a staff of 68 paid personnel and 20 volunteers. He also did a fire chief sharing job with East County Fire & Rescue.

After many changes in the local government, Swinhart said he started thinking about getting even closer to home.

“It’s a different environment down there right now,” he said. “Camas has had a lot of overhauls of leadership at the upper echelons. They’ve had four different mayors in the past two-and-a-half years, they’re getting ready to hire their sixth city administrator in the last 10 years.”

The timing seemed right for him to move on.

“When I saw the posting for Key Peninsula, what struck me is I immediately thought it looks like they wrote that for me,” he said. “Someone who had experience running combination fire department agencies, somebody who had experience as a chief officer in larger organizations, somebody with experience doing strategic planning and operational deployment operations, experience in budgeting, and in working in smaller communities as well.”

And it’s just an hour for his brother and parents to come visit.

“I’m hopeful this will be my last home. I would like to put in maybe another eight years, and it would sure be nice if this was the last place to do it,” he said.

Swinhart plans to start work May 16.

“One of the first things that needs to be done is I need to be taking a deep dive into the budget,” he said. “I need to understand where the money is coming in from, how much, and where it’s been going out to. In visiting with members of the community as part of the hiring process, that was a constant that I got back from people. They want that transparency, and I don’t understand enough about everything that’s been going on to know whether there’s truly been a lack of transparency, but what’s important is that the community feels that is the case and that needs to be addressed.

“Those communication issues are also things that we need to work on internally within the organization too,” he said. “There’s a lot of relationship building and repair that I think is going to be key to moving this department forward. If we can address some of those big issues, a lot of other stuff will fall into place on its own. It’s not going to be overnight. It will be a huge first step.”

In a last word directly addressing KP residents, Swinhart said “If anybody knows of houses to rent, let me know.”