Jim Fox: A force for the Inverness fire department

David Briggs
09/12/2018

Jim Fox, who has served his bayside village of Inverness in two critical roles for over 30 years, is preparing to scale back from his positions as fire chief of the town’s volunteer fire department and water superintendent of its utility district.

His family has had a house in Inverness for three generations, but Jim started out coming for summers from Oakland. “One of my more vivid memories was looking forward to the summer—an endless block of time,” he said. “We used to sail and have a picnic at Indian Beach with the family and sail back in the evenings. The days used to last forever.” 

The summer home in Inverness was built by his mother’s parents, and his father was an engineer who helped maintain a private water system in Inverness Park that served about 12 neighbors. His two younger brothers—Tom and Ken—both live in West Marin and are involved in the fire department. “I’m not surprised [that we all ended up here],” Jim said. “Having grown up here, it’s not like we had real divergent interests.” 

Jim’s dad had served as a Naval officer during World War II, and Jim enlisted in the Navy after two years at Merritt Junior College in Oakland. He was stationed for 18 months on a hospital ship in Vietnam, where he worked as a helmsman and printer.

After returning in 1970, Jim found himself drawn to West Marin, where he worked as a general contractor, building a number of local homes. He soon met third-generation Inverness resident Kate Munger, whom he married on April Fool’s Day in 1978. They have a son, Kalloch, and two grandsons.

Jim began as a volunteer firefighter in 1976. “It started with the desire to help your neighbor,” Jim said. “I was not necessarily looking to advance or make a
career.”

The fire department is funded by property taxes and is linked to the Inverness Public Utility District, the fiscal and legal entity that operates it. Between the two there are several paid positions, but the fire department relies on volunteers. 

After years of volunteering for the department, Jim was hired as superintendent of the water system in 1985, and then as assistant fire chief. 

One of the reasons behind his success within the department was his deep knowledge of the local topography—and his quick learning. The district bought the water system in 1980 from Citizens Utilities Company and undertook major upgrades involving “expanding funky backwoods stuff to be a proper system,” Jim said. The system is based on eight diversions in Inverness’s three valleys that carry water to two treatment plants.

Ken Eichstaedt, general manager of the utility district, quickly learned that Jim was the person to turn to with questions. “There’s so much intrinsic knowledge and legacy with this place,” he said. “What I quickly found is every time I had a question, the guys would say, ‘Go ask Jim.’” 

At the 2016 volunteer firefighter dinner at the Inverness Yacht Club, Mr. Eichstaedt distributed T-shirts that read “Ask Jim” on the back.

The fire department currently has 18 volunteers, not many below the age of 60. 

“It used to be that life here was more affordable and donating time was a lot easier,” Jim said. “I can’t change the demographics.” 

Describing his management of the team, he said he takes citizens who want to help their neighbors, recognizes their strength and weaknesses, and tries “to get emergency response accomplished and keep everyone safe. There are a lot of ways to help besides a mask and hose. We need people to clear brush, do traffic control.”

Burton Eubank, a volunteer firefighter of 33 years, said his chief “creates opportunities for people to feel good about themselves in the department. I value that because it’s part of what makes me want to be on the fire department. He recognized a quality in me.” 

Jim is also known for his quick response to emergencies at all hours. “He’s just always there,” said Brian Cassel, who has worked with Jim for 20 years. “I would always tease Jim because I can look directly across to his house and I sing ‘Jim down the hill and up the hill and down the hill,’” as he responds to calls at all hours of the day and night. 

While most fire chiefs appoint a duty officer once a week so they don’t have to be on call, Jim rarely asks for a replacement. 

“My daughter fell off a trampoline when she was like 16,” Mr. Cassel recalled. “She broke her wrist and called me and I said to go to the fire department and get a hold of Jim. So she did and Jim put her in the truck and drove her to the Novato hospital and basically sat there until my wife got there. That’s the kind of person that he is.”

Still, Jim does have outside interests—and dancing might be the foremost. He started taking lessons at 55, and ended up falling in love with West Coast swing, tango and salsa. He dances at Rancho Nicasio or in Berkeley, and one of the few vacations he’s taken was a blues cruise from Florida to Aruba, on which “you can just dance nonstop,” he said. “It’s nice to get out of town. Otherwise, there’s a sense of responsibility.” 

Jim has been tested by two major disasters in his tenure within the department—the flood of 1982 and the Mount Vision Fire of 1995. 

Mr. Eubank recalled how he drove the very first truck that arrived on the scene of the Vision Fire. “Jim was with me in the passenger seat,” he said. “It was a significant fire, and he wanted me to wait for Marin County Fire to come, but also felt confident in my ability to go ahead and make the path that the other trucks would come on.”

Mr. Eubank explained how Jim sets the themes of volunteer trainings so based on the time of year, and debriefs after calls to give everyone a chance to assess both successes and failures. 

His motto, based on the physician’s “Do no harm,” is “Try not to make things worse,” a mantra he repeats to new recruits. 

Jim’s skillful leadership has earned him the respect of other professionals, including the county fire personnel stationed in Point Reyes. “We do joint drills and they come over here and I think that’s because of his leadership—that he has the ability to engage them,” Mr. Eichstaedt said.

He continued, “He is very good at sort of having his eyes on all the different things—what’s referred to as situational awareness. Not just looking down at your feet where you’re going to step next, but taking a broader view and doing a 360 sweep of everything going on.”

Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber has worked with Jim for 24 years. “Jim epitomizes what it is to give back to your community,” he said. “Jim is one of those people you can always count on when you call to have the answer, and if not, he knows where you can find it.”

Of scaling back his work in the coming months, Jim said, “I’ll be 70 in September. That seems like a good time to start working at transitioning out.” 

That transition will involve “shifting away from the operations part of the fire department to do more of the administrative and training work,” he said. “There are a number of people in the department that are very competent, so I’ll let them run the day-to-day stuff.”

He does not have a fixed date or successor, and he is still dedicated to supporting and training more volunteers. With his extra time, he hopes to catch up on department paperwork, clear dead oaks on his own property, and go trout fishing in the Sierras. He doesn’t imagine totally detaching from the department—“when I see someone in trouble, there’s a desire to help, and that instinct will still be there.” 

At the end of August, Jim took a weeklong cruise to Alaska. His high school friend was visiting an acquaintance in Anchorage, and Jim spontaneously decided to join him. “I have a lot of vacation days that the board would like me to use,” he said. “It helps the budget.”

He added from Anchorage, “I keep checking my hip to see if my pager is there. And it’s not. And that’s a good thing.”