News

Firefighters give the shirts off their backs

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Two Federal Way firefighters have accepted the teasing they'll be subjected to over the next several weeks for their support of a good cause.

Robert Bryant and Anthony John will grace February and November, respectively, in the 2006 firefighter calendar –– wearing nothing but their bunker pants –– to help raise money for the Washington State Council of Firefighters Burn Foundation.

Both had the night off for the 2006 calendar unveiling party Aug. 4 at Pier 66 in Seattle. Between 200 and 300 women gathered to see and take pictures of the 26 firefighters, get their autographs and buy calendars, all for a good cause.

The event's atmosphere resembled a bachelorette party. As the firefighters danced on a stage, the women, ranging in age from 20s to 40s, cheered and screamed. Beer, wine and cocktails were served. At one point, John let auctioneer Mardi Newman pull up his shirt while she called for bids for a poster-size photo of him.

The wives of Bryant and John were in the wild-eyed throng.

Bryant and John are fairly new to firefighting. Both started work at the Federal Way Fire Department about the same time, and both work nine days a month on 24-hour shifts.

Bryant, who's been a firefighter a little more than three years, went straight into the Army after he graduated from high school in Michigan. He served for six years and went to the Persian Gulf twice during Desert Storm. He was last stationed at Fort Lewis, and because he liked the area, he decided to stay and find a job in the Puget Sound area when his service ended.

He said he enjoyed the camaraderie and esprit-de-corps of the Army and wanted to find a civilian job with the same qualities. Becoming a firefighter was a competitive process, but now that he's in, he enjoys it.

"The job is satisfying," he said. "Every day you're helping somebody, improving their quality of life."

While the majority of calls are for medical assistance, Bryant said his favorite calls are for actual fires.

"It's fighting the beast," he said. "I dig that the most. There's life safety and property."

The firefighter calendar –– an annual publication featuring topless firefighters posing with hoses and hydrants, their suspenders hovering over their well-defined physiques –– is the Council of Firefighters Burn Foundation's biggest fund-raiser of the year.

"At a time when calendar sales nationally are decreasing, ours is holding its own," said Rod Heivilin, executive director of the Foundation. "It's a tremendous amount of work, but it's a good fund-raiser."

Each year, the foundation receives applications and photos from firefighters across the state who want to be in the calendar. The council winnows the applications down to a manageable number and sends them to judges.

Those who make the first cut participate in a beauty pageant-type interview process, with the judges choosing the final group of men and women who will grace the next year's calendar.

Even the opportunity to be a judge is a fund-raiser. One year, someone bid $14,000, the highest bid yet, for the opportunity to judge the applicants, and last year the foundation brought in $60,000 from the auctions alone, Heivilin said.

Once the final group is chosen –– 26 firefighters this year, and the same number last year –– they face a busy year of public appearances and autograph-signings to sell the calendars. The firefighters make between 70 and 100 appearances a year and help with the charity auctions for the next year's judge slots, Heivilin said.

Bryant and John said they're doing the calendar, despite the good-natured grief they'll get from their co-workers, because they support the efforts to help burn victims.

Last year, the foundation donated almost $80,000 to Harborview Medical Center for burn research, $5,000 to Spokane Valley Firefighters for a children's safety museum and $10,000 to the Burned Children's Recovery Fund to send several young burn victims to a special summer camp.

In addition, the foundation donated $4,330 to several local fire departments to purchase smoke alarms and $6,000 to the International Association of Firefighters Burn Foundation (IAFF). The IAFF disperses funding to various research programs across the country.

Bryant's a giant of a man, tall and sturdy, with a bald head and a wide, friendly smile. Seated at a table at Station 65, near his wife, Monika, and 4-year-old daughter Bailey, who stopped in for a visit, Bryant laughed as John pointed out his remarkable similarity to Shrek, the animated movie character.

When he's not working, he estimates he spends 80 percent of his free time at the gym, pumping iron for bodybuilding competitions. He competes locally and recently won a super-heavyweight champion contest.

A firefighter and bodybuilder's affinity for action movies is understandable, which makes Bryant's choice for favorite movie of all, "The Sound of Music," a little surprising.

"It's a touching movie," he said. "I enjoy the singing."

John also has been with the Fire Department for three years, but he came into firefighting after emerging from a different kind of war. He grew up in a rough area of Oakland, Calif., and he decided he'd had enough when a friend killed his girlfriend and then himself.

He started thinking about what jobs he'd like to do to help people and decided on fire service. "The only person you could look up to was a firefighter," he said.

John isn't as big as Bryant, but he has the same affability and inclination to smile. He, too, enjoys being a firefighter.

"Every call is different," he said.

He found his way to Washington after he fell in love with a woman from here. They married and have three athletic sons, ages 11, 9 and 6.

When John isn't working or running his sons to soccer or basketball practice, he works on landscaping and remodeling homes. His family enjoys the suburban outdoors and spends time together in-line skating, bicycling and exploring Bonney Lake, where they recently moved.

John enjoys action movies, particularly flashy firefighting ones, but he spends more time watching what his kids want to see.

"I like 'Ladder 49' and 'Backdraft,' even though I know it's not really like that," he said, laughing. "With the boys, I don't get to see a lot. Mostly Disney movies I watch with a bowl of popcorn and the boys."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

Staff photographer Fumiko Yarita contributed to this report.

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