South King Fire and Rescue Capt. Jeff Bellinghausen compares retirement to a wedding.
First, the initial decision to retire — the “will you marry me?”, life-changing magnitude of a commitment.
The following months include endless planning and preparation, finalizing every and any small detail. Finally the big day arrives and the honeymoon phase follows.
For Bellinghausen, the big day is Friday, Jan. 31.
Bellinghausen, the Federal Way Mirror’s Citizen of the Month for January, has dedicated more than three decades of service to the Federal Way community since 1986.
After growing up in Eastern Washington, he lived on Mercer Island in his early 20s while working at a Seattle hospital.
During one of his work commutes, Bellinghausen got into a crash on the Interstate 90 bridge while biking and ended up with a broken jaw, among other injuries.
The paramedics came to his side, packaged him up and were going to take him to a Bellevue hospital, and Bellinghausen asked if they could instead take him to his Seattle hospital.
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. These guys just parked, turned on their lights, got out and went like this,” Bellinghausen said while motioning how the paramedics stopped traffic. “… And everyone on I-90 stopped, they pulled a u-turn in the middle of the bridge and took me where I wanted to go.”
Less than two years later, Bellinghausen was a firefighter with the Federal Way Fire Department at the age of 23, after attending Bates Technical College and volunteering as a resident firefighter in Sumner for nine months prior.
In 2014, the fire department created the Community Affairs Office, facilitated by Bellinghausen, to combine public information resources with public education.
“We took a very non-traditional view of how to connect the fire department to the community,” he said. “We became a much better community partner.”
The Community Affairs Office allowed the fire department to build relationships with community members, schools, neighborhood homeowners associations, nursing homes and local nonprofits, among other organizations.
South King Fire’s Community Affairs Office offers free CPR classes, free car seat installation and has given away thousands of smoke detector alarms throughout the years, Bellinghausen said.
“We created a face of the fire department so that people could relate to us.”
This also included having a department member on hand to answer odd, yet commonly asked questions and providing firefighters with stickers to hand out to kids when out in the city.
Bellinghausen had a knack for “bringing up firefighters and encouraging them to be an officer,” what he refers to as the “soft skills” of firefighting.
While he has run hundreds of calls and directed many emergency scenes over the years, some firefighters excel at the technical portion of the job, but Bellinghausen found his niche in connecting with people.
Looking back at his years of service, the relationships made along the way are what stand out. Both the banter and friendships, but also how the department rallied around his family amid tragedy.
Bellinghausen’s daughter, Whitney, was in a car crash in 2008 and died due to a staph infection at the age of 20. In her honor, South King Fire created the Whitney Bellinghausen Community Service Award to recognize outstanding citizens in Federal Way.
In his career, Bellinghausen has operated by a solutions-oriented mindset: Identify a problem, craft solutions, select the best and implement.
This way of thinking led to the CARES (Community Assistance, Referrals and Education Services) Unit, a partnership program between SKFR and VRFA to address low-acuity, high frequency utilizers of the emergency response system.
It also led to working with a local apartment building in the 1990s to create more detailed complex maps, which are still used today.
Solutions-oriented thinking produced successful saves, too.
Years ago, a local restaurant owner had an aortic aneurysm, a life-threatening issue with the main vessel that branches and provides blood to the legs. Bellinghausen and his crew quickly treated the man and “he was the first guy that was a save that I then saw in a grocery store months later.”
Bellinghausen said he will always remember his first CPR save, and of course, the scary calls where you must rely on training to survive, and also those very high-stress calls where “you do the right thing and it saves someone’s life,” he said. “Those are really fun.”
He will spend one more day serving the community and running calls at Station 62 with his son Josh, also a firefighter with South King, this Friday.
After that: “I’ll do retired guy stuff,” Bellinghausen said, adding that he hopes to get his 18-hole average back to the mid-nineties.
Retirement will be spent with friends and family, on the golf course, traveling and maintaining his service to the community throughout volunteering with his wife, Deborah, a school nurse in the Federal Way school district. The two plan to get involved with Convoy of Hope, a disaster relief agency.
“We’ll go to Mexico right after I — I almost said graduate — right after I retire,” Bellinghausen said with a laugh.
“It’s sure been fun,” he said of his career. “It’s been an honor to serve.”