South King Fire and Rescue first responders Jacob Wassall, left, and Lt. Thomas Bolin discuss the trials and joys of life as a firefighter. Photo by Olivia Sullivan, the Mirror

South King Fire and Rescue first responders Jacob Wassall, left, and Lt. Thomas Bolin discuss the trials and joys of life as a firefighter. Photo by Olivia Sullivan, the Mirror

‘We move with a purpose’

South King firefighters harness passion for saving lives and serving the public

There’s a calm throughout Fire Station 62, anticipating the next call. Shiny red fire trucks dominate the truck bay, still every bit as mesmerizing as when you were a child.

The emergency vehicles are parked with doors open and the gear, which weighs nearly 70 pounds, is piled neatly beside the engine, ready to go at a moment’s notice — or within 90 seconds to be exact.

Located on 1st Avenue South near South 312th Street, Fire Station 62 is South King Fire and Rescue’s headquarters. It is the busiest station in the district, answering 15 to 40 calls a day, with less than 20 percent being fire responses.

SKFR serves Federal Way and Des Moines with 140 firefighters — seven of which are women. Every firefighter and officer is also an emergency medical technician. Calls for service range from major fires and cardiac arrests to lower-acuity responses, such as assisting people who have fallen.

And in a fire, medical, or rescue situation, the firefighters will be there.

“Every call is an emergency to someone,” said Capt. Jeff Bellinghausen, community affairs officer who is in his 33rd year of service with the department.

Each of SKFR’s seven stations has a nickname. A large mural painted on the inside station wall deems Station 62 as “The Shark Pit.”

The station houses an aid car, one fire engine, one ladder truck and a battalion rig. Once the bells chime to alert of an emergency call, the firefighters drop everything, gear up, and are on the road in under two minutes.

“We routinely make that,” Bellinghausen said about the response time. “But we don’t run. Firefighters rarely run. We move with a purpose.”

‘I wanted a job that had meaning’

A typical shift begins at 7:30 a.m. with engine and gear checks. The work day consists of trainings, emergency calls, workouts and assignments to fill the 24 hours on call.

The physical demands of the job match the emotional demands, Bellinghausen said.

“As an industry, we need to figure out how to better take care of each other,” Bellinghausen said. “It’s a challenge getting past the macho-ness of our job, and talking about the things that we see.”

In recent decades, more importance has been placed on employee assistance programs for individuals in the fire department. The options are expanding for firefighters to access the aid of social workers, peer-to-peer discussions and national training programs.

“Those things build up and you feel there’s no one you can really talk to because unless you’re a firefighter, you don’t really get what we’re doing,” he said. “Our job is different from everyone else and having the ability to talk to another firefighter about our stresses, we’re hoping addresses the problem.”

It’s the price one must pay in this field of helping others.

“I wanted a job that had meaning, and boy, this job does,” said fire Lt. Thomas Bolin, who is in his 21st year of service with SKFR. “When I look back at the end of it all, I know I’ll feel that I did something with my life by helping other people.”

A few incidents stand out, such as one when he responded to a call on Christmas morning. Bolin had to perform CPR on a mother, by the Christmas tree in front of her kids. He saved her.

It is a job with a combination of experiences: the gratifying, the tragic, the mundane, the inspiring and the devastating. All of which could be in a single shift.

“The most rewarding thing is the feeling you get after a good call, making a CPR save or saving somebody. Just that feeling you get when you’re helping people,” he said. “There’s also a dark side to that, too. Sometimes you get bad calls that affect you mentally and physically.”

Equally important as physical well-being is mental health for those in the firefighting industry.

“We see a lot of things that people shouldn’t see,” Bolin said. “You don’t expect it to be as intense as it is sometimes. It builds over time.”

Several firefighters said one of the best ways to decompress and deal with the job’s stress is to rely on a support network of family, coworkers and friends.

“It’s mentally good to walk out of here and leave it behind at the end of your shift,” Bolin said. “Just go home and be with family. Going home to family is my favorite thing to do.”

Regardless of the immense physical, mental, emotional and personal obstacles, Bolin said being a firefighter is the best gig in the world.

“If the passion is there and you want to do it bad enough, keep trying for it,” he said. “Be resilient.”

‘It’s about making people’s days better’

SKFR firefighter Jacob Wassall was hired in Dec. 2017 after a rigorous hiring and recruitment training process. Wassall is in the first year of his three-year firefighter apprenticeship program.

“Whether we’re on a call or not, it’s about making people’s days better,” Wassall said. “You go on calls and see people generally on the worst days of their lives. It’s not something I take lightly. My actions don’t just reflect on me, they reflect on firefighters in general.”

Everyone has a perception of firefighters and a high expectation of who will come to the rescue once 911 is dialed, he said.

“We need to live up to that,” Wassall said. “This is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, frankly. There’s not really a whole lot of things about this job that are easy.”

The quality standard set by the people in the industry and the public is his motivation, he said.

“I’m inspired by everybody here at the station, the guys that came before me, the foundation set by the retired firefighters, the public’s expectation, and the idea of not letting down anyone we serve,” he said.

These expectations differ from what you see on TV about firefighting. In the firefighting industry, it’s paramount to have compassion, use creative thinking, and be a problem solver, Wassall said.

“In order to do this job, you have to have something in you that says ‘I need to help that person,’” he said. “This job isn’t about the firefighters. We’re the lucky ones who get to do this for a living. This job is for everybody else.”

For almost all firefighters, this career affects the entire family. Because of the work schedule, there are missed birthdays and anniversaries. Families often come and celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the fire station kitchen when their loved one is on shift. Bedtime and goodnights are done via Facetime.

But the firehouse camaraderie and family culture among the department becomes your home away from home, he said. Around 7:30 a.m. every morning, the ending shift and the beginning shift gather around the station’s kitchen table for breakfast and “tie-in time.”

“The world’s problems can be solved at the kitchen table,” Wassall said with a smile. “It’s essentially a shift meeting, and we talk about what the shift did before, what’s going on for the day, or any updates.”

Wassall added that anyone from the public can stop by a fire station for a tour and meet the firefighters.

“It’s important for residents, the taxpayers, to know these fire stations are theirs, too,” he said.

Aside from emergency responses, SKFR is active in the community with programs focused on fire prevention and safety tips, such as proper car seat installation, smoke and CO2 detector checks, fall prevention help, camps for kids, city events, career nights, reading days and more.

South King Fire and Rescue is looking to hire 12 firefighters in 2019. For more information, visit southkingfire.org.

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