Fire-wise and thankful

Arlene Obtinario celebrates completing her Executive Fire Officer Program courses with her fire district chiefs — Wayne Kier, left, formerly of Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue, and Steve Vogel, of Clallam County Fire District 3 — at the District 3 station on Fifth Avenue. Sequim Gazette photo by Michael Dashiell

Years ago, Arlene Obtinario's emergency medical technician training helped save one of her young daughters.

That daughter now has three children.

For three decades, Obtinario has been a volunteer or employee of fire districts in either Port Ludlow or Sequim, and she met her husband, Jim, through the fire service as well.

"I feel like I owe a lot to the fire department," she says.

Others might say she's earned it.

This spring, Obtinario received her certificate for completing the Executive Fire Officer Program, an advanced program through the National Fire Academy that boasts just 3,000 graduates nationwide since it was created in 1985.

"(The program) is the most elite fire leadership program in the U.S.," says Chuck Burkell, fire officer program director at the academy.

To complete the program, Obtinario and others have to take four courses and submit a research project for each that demonstrates real-life applications of course theory.

Obtinario's first paper - "Training Topics Intended to Accelerate the Learning Curve for Fire District Commissioner Members" - received a 4.0, the highest grade possible, becoming one of just 38 students from Washington to earn that mark.

It took Obtinario six years to complete the Executive Fire Officer Program that includes classes about targeting and minimizing risks in communities and how capable districts are in handling emergency operations. She completed her first three research projects while working as administrative chief for Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue.

In 2009, a retirement at Sequim's fire district and administration change at Port Ludlow's led Obtinario to take a position with Fire District 3. Still working on her Executive Fire Officer Program curriculum, she joined the Sequim-based fire district as a volunteer at first, then worked into the role of administrative assistant and secretary to the board.

She succeeded Sandi Shields, who had been with the district for 15 years.

"I feel really blessed, fortunate (to have Obtinario in the position)," District 3 chief Steve Vogel says.

Firefighter's supporter

Needing a fourth research project to complete her academy training, Obtinario took on the district's policies and procedures. The resulting work - a risk analysis of payroll benefit fraud within the district - earned her that final passing grade and her Executive Fire Officer Program certificate in December 2009.

Wayne Kier, now an assistant chief for a fire district in North Kitsap, was Obtinario's mentor at Port Ludlow for years, she says.

Obtinario got her start with fire districts in 1980 with the Coyle Volunteer Fire Fighters Association in Quilcene, and also was a volunteer firefighter and EMT for Jefferson County Fire Protection District No. 2 in Quilcene. She served as a fire commissioner for 15 years (1982-1996) for District 2 as well. She worked for both Jefferson County District 1 and District 2 as secretary.

From 1994-2003, she was office manager and district secretary for Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue before becoming the district's chief financial officer (2003-2006) and administrative chief (2006-2008).

A 'man's world'

Obtinario says she's had to work hard to prove herself, not helped by the fact that the majority of people she works with are men.

"It's not been easy but (it's been) worthwhile," she says. It is a man's world. (As a woman) you have to balance femininity, sexuality and career.

"But chiefs I've had," she says, pointing to Kier and Vogel, "look past gender."

A Gardiner resident, Obtinario keeps plenty busy outside of work, with tending to about 140 rose bushes in what she calls the "Gardiner Gardens," teaching Sunday school and helping with children's ministry at Sequim Community Church and seeing her nine grandchildren.

"I love being part of people helping people," she says.

Reach Michael Dashiell at

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