Hometown Heroes: Fire captain reflects on 50 years of dedicated service

Tom Thorson started his fire service career in 1972.

For Capt. Tom Thorson of South King Fire and Rescue, 50 years of service holds many memories.

Like hearing the sirens wail in the middle of the night, jumping on his 10-speed bike, and racing to the fire station as a volunteer during his teenage years. Or the time he became the youngest Emergency Medical Technician in Washington state in the 1970s.

He still remembers the feeling of fear when hunkering down in a hotel basement during Category 5 Hurricane Irma in 2017 as wind and rain whipped the building. And the feeling of determination when planning how to help those destroyed communities find life again.

Thorson began volunteering with the department — then known as King County Fire District #39 — in 1972. He was officially hired as a firefighter on April 1, 1975. His five decades of service were honored with South King Fire last month. He is also named the Federal Way Mirror Hometown Hero for March.

“There has never been a time when Captain Thorson did not deliver the best service possible to our community members and we are honored that even after 50 years he still continues to show up and brings his best to work each and every day,” said South King Fire and Rescue Chief Dave Mataftin.

Thorson was a driving force in building the Puget Sound Urban Search and Rescue Task Force — one of the first 12 national task forces to be Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certified. His FEMA affiliation gave him the opportunity to help people in crisis during bombings, earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters.

Thorson also served on the National Incident Management team, which oversees all of the Urban Search and Rescue programs while deployed.

During the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995, a total of 168 people were killed when a truck filled with explosives detonated outside of a federal building and blew off the building’s entire north wall. Rescue teams from across the country flew in to assist in the wake, including Thorson’s team.

“It was humbling to get there thinking, ‘OK, the pros from Federal Way and Seattle and Tacoma here. Now let’s take care of this.’ You realize that those people had been dealing with it for four days before they finally admitted they needed outside assistance because they were working 24 hours a day and they didn’t want to give up because those were their community members,” Thorson said. “You realize you’re not really a whole lot different than they are. You’ve just got fresh people, fresh tools, fresh equipment, and you’re able to jump in and help them solve their problem.”

“It was quite interesting to be sent throughout the country and trying to figure out how you can help the impacted community with a fresh set of eyes, or fresh people, or different tools that they may or may not have access to,” he said.

Another year, the Red River flood in North Dakota required rescue teams to use GPS systems to predict water level risings to help the community know where water may encroach, he said. Thorson flew in a helicopter five days in a row to gain an overall view of the flooding area, reporting back to his team on necessary routes and equipment.

“Technical Rescue is where you get to bring in a different skill set,” he said.

On the home front at SKFR, Thorson worked in the facilities division as a department mechanic for several years. He then was tasked with developing an in-house technical rescue team, and he became a certified instructor for structural collapse, trench rescue confined space, high angle rope, vehicle machinery extrication and other techniques. After leading the rescue program for 22 years, Thorson transitioned to the logistics division about three years ago.

“After riding the rigs for 45 years or whatever, it was taking a toll on my body, getting up 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 times a night, you just never catch up from sleep deprivation,” he said, adding that his new role has allowed him to push retirement off and add several years to his career.

The logistics division is never-ending problem-solving, he said. From repairs and replacements to figuring out why certain tools are breaking, or what training is necessary for crews to avoid future equipment damage.

“The only thing constant in the fire service is change. Somebody who’s always finding a better way to do it, a different tool or something like that,” he said. “… That’s just mind-boggling when you look back 50 years where we were versus where we are now.”

Thorson says one of his proudest accomplishments is marrying his wife of 42 years, Billie. The couple have three kids and four grandkids.

“She saw something in me that must matter,” he said. “[She’s] put up with me forever, supported me with everything I wanted to do, encouraged me to try for the different positions that allowed me to do everything I’ve done.”

Thorson’s father served as a volunteer fire chief in South King County, which inspired him to join the fire service. But climbing the ranks like his father wasn’t the right path for him, Thorson said.

“I decided [being a] captain is probably the point I don’t want to go past,” he said. “I just realize that has opened so many doors for me. I probably wouldn’t have been able to take all of the technical rescue classes … I would have missed out on all of that activity. Sometimes you really got to figure out where your happiness level is. And stop there.”

In his logistics role, he gets to connect with more people than a usual firefighting shift — including the newest department members.

With them, he takes on a mentorship role and passes along decades of knowledge and the advice to always think of a plan A, B, and C.

“That’s exactly how I approach it: What’s your normal method of operation? OK, for some reason that fails. What’s your backup plan? And it’s just fun to see the light bulb come on,” he said.

“Passing the information on mentoring and coaching is something I felt I was good at because I had some really strong officers growing up that took the time to teach me. So I feel it’s an obligation to give back to them so that they can serve the community much more effectively.”