Skip to main content

Cottonwood Heights Journal

Assistant Fire Chief Mike Watson reflects on 28-year career

Feb 10, 2020 02:04PM ● By Cassie Goff

“Children are vulnerable to their environment,” Watson explained as he described the hardest part of working as a firefighter: seeing children get injured. (Cassie Goff/City Journals)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

After 28 years of being intimately involved with fire, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Watson will be spending more time around water, as he plans to do a lot of fishing in retirement.

During those 28 years working in the fire service, he has served in Northern California, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho. He began working swing shifts in Utah before being assigned to multiple different stations throughout the valley including the old station in Holladay, Magna and Riverton. Watson has served as a firefighter, hazardous material technician, paramedic, captain, Wildland Program manager, operations battalion chief, training bureau chief of Medical and Fire Training bureaus, assistant chief, area commander and support services section chief. He served as liaison to Draper City for UFA (United Fire Authority) before transferring to Cottonwood Heights during incorporation.

“From this 30,000-foot level, it looks pretty cool,” said Watson when thinking about his career. “I envy the young folks who will be in the industry for a long time cause it’s pretty cool.”

“I’m quite astonished that I’m sitting here talking about retirement,” Watson said during an interview. “I’m not a reflective person. I’ve never slowed down long enough to think about the past.”

But when asked to do so, some of the most memorable experiences of Watson’s career are the moments he never would have anticipated. For example, being called to Texas to aid in the space shuttle Columbia disaster recovery efforts.

“We went to Hemphill, Texas to search for space shuttle, and human, parts,” Watson recalled; he was part of the wildland crews being sent out for days searching for debris. During that time, the firefighters were invited to listen to the astronauts talk at the local high schools in the evenings. “I found it really intriguing. As devastating as it was, it was really compelling.”

Watson was inspired by the astronauts’ sentiments. They were very appreciative to the firefighters and volunteers; they were motivated to learn, fix the problem and get right back out into space. “Oh my gosh; the dedication. They know the risks, and they are willing to take those risks for the sake of science. Seeing what they put themselves and families at risk for is still inspiring to me.”

That dedication is all too familiar for firefighters. “We do ask a lot of our loved ones. It’s the same for police officers. We do everything we can to be safe, but we accept that we will be put into dangerous situations.”

Texas was not the only place Watson was able to travel to for firefighting business. The most memorable destination for him was Washington, DC. He was always interested in visiting DC but that was “not something that I ever saw coming.”

Even though the destinations sometimes had a certain draw, Watson continues to value the personal interactions involved in those trips, specifically “developing relationships with firefighters across the state and other states.”

In fact, reflecting on his career, many of the moments Watson values dearly have involved people. From being peer pressured into taking the firefighting test by his friends, to working with newly hired wildland crews, to bantering with his fire station crews, to working with community members.

Watson was hired in October of 1991, after some of his friends who were firefighters encouraged him to take the test. When he went to test, he was older than many of his fellow recruits. “I was competing against people in their prime. I always knew I had to take care of myself if I was going to work long enough to retire.” Throughout his life, Watson has been an avid runner and biker.

Eventually, Watson began to help run the Wildland Program. “The people that were in the program with me all became officers of some kind. It’s significant to see that these people came through the ranks and are still contributing.”

Wildland firefighting is a seasonal firefighting job, starting in May and ending sometime in September. Recruits are sent out to fight wildfires, often in unpopulated areas, for weeks on end, unsure of when they’ll eat next, get to shower or go home. The majority of recruits are 18 to 22 years of age.

Watson recalls getting the new recruits at the start of the season and being tasked with training them how to fight fire well and do so while staying safe. “It was one of the most amazing experiences in my career.”

“It was interesting to watch them learn that it’s not about them: it's about the incident and being fully prepared all the time,” Watson explained. Not one minute of the whole season was about fighting fire. It’s about learning the craft, learning responsibility and resilience, and liking it to put up with those conditions. They all learned some life lessons to take with them. You could see the difference in them from the start of the season to the end.”

Watson has really valued being able to watch people learn and grow. “It’s pretty amazing if you flash back to 28 years ago and think about the things you can’t see in the future — it’s really fulfilling.”

After spending so much time in the wild, Watson transferred to spend many years working as a captain with crews in firehouses. He would frequently wake up early to wash the emergency vehicles, in addition to doing dishes and many other chores. After ignoring his crew’s persistent pestering to leave some of the chores to other crewmembers, the crewmembers decided to take action. One morning, Watson woke to his door being stuck; they had roped the door closed. But Watson was determined to wash the engine. He tossed himself out his window, walked around the firehouse and was able to get in through a kitchen window that was open. When the house alarm went off at seven in the morning, the crewmembers saw that his door was still roped shut, and were pretty pleased with themselves, until they walked into the bay to find Watson washing the engine.

Sine that didn’t quite work, the next attempt from the crew was to attack him and saran wrap him to a chair. “There was a lot of banter and joking,” Watson said. 

Beyond the banter, Watson enjoyed bonding with the members of his crew. “When we were on a call, my partner and I were thinking alike and came to resolves really quickly. We were always trying to outthink each other and that’s a lot of fun.”

One of the most adrenaline-inducing moments of Watson’s career occurred while working with one such partner. “There were two fires I thought I could die in.” One was during a structure fire in a storage facility. Watson and his partner were upstairs, pushing back fire from a storage container. “As we were pushing fire back from in front of us, the fire came around behind us from down the hallway,” essentially trapping the firefighters in the middle of a hallway, with fire coming toward them from both sides. They had to retreat through the fire. “We were laying down and the flames were on our faces as we slid down the stairs.”

“I consider myself to be lucky more than anything,” Watson concluded. “As I’m going to into the retirement system and taking some of the seminars, it’s made me pause a few times and go ‘holy cow, I’m so lucky.”