One last ride: Longtime firefighter, marine team member retires from South King Fire and Rescue

Driver Engineer John Fontana recently retired after more than 35 years of serving the Des Moines and Federal Way communities.

Driver Engineer John Fontana’s final day before retirement started out similar to any other day of his previous 35-and-a-half years with South King Fire and Rescue.

Fontana, who has been a member of the fire district’s Marine Team since its inception, boarded the new fire boat at the Des Moines Marina, slipped on a life jacket, and smiled from behind the helm.

The Marine 367 vessel, “Zenith,” is the reason for the additional six months tacked onto Fontana’s career. Though he was planning to retire in November 2021, he couldn’t leave before seeing the new-and-improved fire boat.

“That was my goal, I was going to [retire] last year, but that’s when the department secured the funding … I stretched it out to this,” he said.

Fontana’s career started in January 1988 with what was previously the King County Fire District #26 in Des Moines. Then, the fire district merged with Federal Way Fire Department to create South King Fire and Rescue.

He was one of the first firefighters to operate the first fire boat, along with just a handful of others originally from the Des Moines district. As plans and designs for the new vessel took shape, Fontana acted as a consultant for Fire Chief Dave Mataftin to bounce ideas or suggestions off of, given his decades of time spent with the watercraft.

“Always a positive force in the department, John will be missed by many, including me,” said Mataftin, adding that Fontana is the definition of what it means to be a firefighter. “I have the deepest respect for him as a person, and coming to know his family is special to me as well. John’s retirement is well-deserved. His gain is South King’s loss.”

This spring, Fontana is one of the first crew members to drive the new boat, which also gave him a few extra months with his firehouse family, he said.

“I was fortunate to have a good crew throughout my whole career,” he said. “That’s the part that I’ll miss. It’s the camaraderie and the firehouse life and sitting around the table, solving all of the world’s problems.”

Leaving the department with a respected legacy, and an unofficial title as firehouse chef, Fontana said it’s a good time for him to go.

Cruising up the Puget Sound on a May afternoon in the fire boat, Fontana passes the shorelines where he spent years helping people on those very roads, in those homes, and in those neighborhoods.

“It’s pretty cool,” Fontana said of driving the new vessel. “It’s a good feeling.”