Allen Church was just a kid when his dad, a former captain with the Tacoma Fire Department, took him to see the aftermath of the Port of Tacoma Pier 7 fire in July 1963.
Once he saw the scorched engines, the destroyed docks and the blackened debris leftover from the hours-long battle against the flames, Church, who is retiring as South King Fire and Rescue’s fire chief this month, knew this was the career for him.
“As a youngster, he took me down after the fire to show me the incredible damage and several fire engines … got caught in the fire and they were burnt to a crisp. That just stuck with me. Like ‘holy cow, my dad is involved with this?’” Church recalled on a recent morning at his office, choking up at the memory.
The pier fire took the life of Tacoma Fire Battalion Chief Arthur Strong and injured dozens of firefighters when a pier crane automatic cable reel led to a short circuit and resulted in a fierce fire, according to a fire engineering website.
“I just loved the fire service after that.”
On Dec. 31, Church will celebrate his final day of employment with South King Fire and Rescue after a 43-year long career in the fire service.
“The reality is finally hitting that it’s nearly time,” Church said of his retirement.
Church started as a volunteer firefighter in 1976 in University Place and was hired by South King Fire, formerly Federal Way Fire Department, in 1978. He has held every rank possible in the department and spent the last 33 years of his career in a chief officer position, reigning as fire chief since 2001.
Church, the 15th member hired by the department, said SKFR was a volunteer-oriented department at the time of his hiring; the small amount of paid staff was augmented by nearly 100 volunteer firefighters. In contrast, the department now has nearly 180 paid firefighters and no volunteers.
Emergency call levels in the 1980s floated around 1,500-2,000 a year; the department now runs upwards of 20,000 calls annually, he said.
Of the thousands and thousands of calls over his career, some are burned into his memory — and usually not the “feel-good” ones.
“I’ve tried to flush … many of them,” he said, exhaling heavily, his eyes scanning the table in front of him as his mind wandered back through history.
One of his first days on the job, Church responded to a vehicle crash. Two grandparents were picking up their grandkids from school when their car was rear-ended by a drunk driver and caught fire as the gas tank exploded. Upon putting out the flames, firefighters discovered the bodies inside.
Another time when his son was only six months old, Church responded to a SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) call for another six-month-old child.
“Doggonit, I was going to save that little boy,” Church recalled. “But I didn’t save him … We don’t remember the good [calls]. I think we remember the ones that are probably the most difficult for us.”
He beams with pride discussing the times his SKFR firefighters have completed successful water rescues, saved victims from burning houses and extricated patients from gnarly car crashes.
“Those are the ones I want to think back on.”
Another juxtaposition from his early days to now is the amount of resources for department members, such as peer support programs and the implementation of chaplains.
“I’ve dealt with [a lot] but our folks are dealing with things nowadays that are just, at times, horrific,” he said. “Back in the day, we sucked it up because we had to …That has a toll on you.”
The typical term for a fire chief is three to seven years. Church has held on for nearly two decades.
“I’ve kind of exceeded that a little,” Church joked. “I think it’s because I just care about the fire service so much. I care about our people and the community so much.”
The fire department has maintained a Class 2 rating under Church’s leadership, and he is proud of how he is leaving the department in regards to labor relations and financial stability.
“I’m retiring with the department in very good shape financially,” he said. “Surviving the great recession, a number of smaller recessions … I feel very comfortable with where the department is and where it is heading.”
Church was a strong force in the region, working to secure an emergency medical services levy on the ballot in 2006-07, which passed, and also in the merger of Federal Way and Des Moines fire districts in 2006 to create South King Fire and Rescue.
Along the way, the department weathered misconduct allegations and nepotism rumors, the latter of which Church adamantly refutes.
“It’s all about giving back,” he said, adding that the sense of selflessness was instilled by his parents, both of whom have passed away.
His daughter is an emergency dispatcher at Swedish Hospital, his son-in-law is a physician’s assistant and his son, Brandon Church, is a firefighter with South King. Brandon Church is currently serving as a sergeant in the Air Force overseas in Niger, Africa.
“That’s why I think you see it; it’s generational,” he said of public service careers. “You see offspring follow in the footsteps because it’s just something that is in you, to give back and to serve the public and to help people.”
While conversation undercurrents in the community rumored Church may take a seat on the SKFR board of fire commissioners, the outgoing chief said he doesn’t see that happening in the foreseeable future.
“I really thought about it, but it wouldn’t be fair,” he explained. “It’s time for Vic [Pennington] and the team to take the organization to new heights and new places where they want to go — not where the old chief wants it to go.”
Upon his first day of retirement in 2020, Church can be found chasing his 20-month old grandson, taking a breather and enjoying time with his family and wife, Sue.
“Be fair. Be consistent. Make sure you listen to what the community has to say. And don’t take no for an answer; find a way to get to yes.”