South King Fire and Rescue firefighters Walter Hanks (Left) and Tyler Wilkins (Right) on scene for an aid call outside a KFC. Haley Donwerth/staff photo.

South King Fire and Rescue firefighters Walter Hanks (Left) and Tyler Wilkins (Right) on scene for an aid call outside a KFC. Haley Donwerth/staff photo.

Firefighter for a day

Mirror reporter Haley Donwerth joined SKFR Firefighters at Station 63 to learn what it takes to be a firefighter.

The break room is quiet, two long tables pushed together with about 10 chairs around it. The kitchen is spacious, with a large fridge, plenty of counter space, a stove-top oven and dishwasher.

A small room off to the side has two bathrooms and an array of reclining chairs for the firefighters to sleep in when they have a chance. There are also sleeping bays on the bottom floor where the engines and aid cars are kept for firefighters working the night shift.

But that all depends on how often the bell sounds around the station.

Unlike the loud, trill alarms installed in schools, the bells that go off inside Station 63 are a little more melodic. It’s still loud though, and along with the bell, all the firefighters on duty at the station have pagers that go off for every call.

And no matter what was happening before, once those bells sound, firefighters spring into action.

On this particular day, the first bell sounded around 11 a.m., earlier than normal. So, all three firefighters and I hopped into the engine and took off to a nearby elementary school for a fire alarm.

Luckily it was a false alarm, but either way, they were ready to go in as if a fire was raging. That’s how they go into every call. It’s always better to be safe.

It was on our way back to the station when the excitement you’d expect as a first responder happened. Right down the road from the station on the sidewalk next to KFC, a man was sprawled on the ground, barely moving.

So Walter Hanks, who was driving the engine, turned around in the driveway of Station 63 and headed back towards the KFC parking lot. Hanks, Ryleigh Carr, and Tyler Wilkins gathered their equipment and headed down the sidewalk to where the man was laying.

When we approached, the man sat up and started mumbling, his words shifting between clear and barely understood. He had a fast food bag and other personal items strewn around him, as well as some medication for dealing with mental illness.

Police arrived on scene shortly after we did, calling for an EMT unit when they arrived.

It became clear the more time everyone spent talking to the man that he was undergoing some type of episode, possibly exacerbated by what they suspected was a mixture of mental health medication and alcohol.

In an instance where first responders determine a person is unable to care for themselves for any reason, they are able to have that person involuntarily committed to a nearby hospital for care and evaluation.

Hanks decided on scene the man couldn’t care for himself, so an ambulance was called and he was taken to Harborview Medical Center for evaluation.

Unlike moments before, when the man had been sitting on the ground, speaking to first responders in short, incoherent sentences and blowing raspberries with his mouth, once firefighters, police officers and paramedics got hold of him, he came to life.

He shouted, “Let go of my arm,” repeatedly while trying to throw officers off of himself. He had to be strapped to the gurney before paramedics could take him to the hospital.

That’s what it’s like being a firefighter. Everyday brings something a little different.

Wilkins, a lieutenant with SKFR for the last five years, said the variety is his favorite part about the work.

“It fits my personality very well,” he said.

Before joining SKFR, Wilkins volunteered with Whatcom County Fire District 4 during his time at Western Washington University. He was an incident safety officer for about six or seven months before he joined SKFR. He also volunteered about two hours a day in high school at Snohomish District 1, he said.

Hanks has a similar story of how he got started in this field.

He started at 22, and his inspiration came from seeing fire engines drive past him when he would walk to school in Lakewood, Washington.

He also enjoys helping people, so becoming a firefighter seemed like the best fit for him.

He’s 28 now and has been loving his job since he started.

It’s not a field for the faint-hearted. You work 24-hour shifts and never know what call you’ll respond to next.

But it’s also a rewarding field for those who choose it.

Carr told the Mirror in a previous interview that she enjoys the reward of interactng with community members during her shifts, because it’s an opportunity for her to give back.

The last part of my day with SKFR happened in Des Moines at SKFR Station 66.

The team did fit testing for their masks to ensure there weren’t any gaps that could potentially let in smoke and debris during any calls. SKFR undergoes fit testing every year, and hazmat teams and fire marshals do additional testing on their equipment.

After the fit testing was completed, everyone had a craving for Dick’s Drive-In in Kent. Most of the time, Hanks said, the team will buy groceries and make dinner at the station.

“We won’t go out of our way to get Dick’s,” he said, but since they were already in the area they decided to make a pit stop for the well-loved fast food chain.

One of the last calls we went on was directly across the street from Station 63. A woman was having a panic attack after learning her dad’s health was declining.

That was a hard call to be part of. The first responders handled it very well, though, calming the woman down and helping her get into a healthy mindset again.

The call happened to be in an apartment complex with children running around outside.

After the call, Carr stopped to talk with some kids, offering them a smile and some stickers the firefighters carry around with them.

“I like connecting with the community that way,” she said.


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Ryleigh Carr, a new firefighter with SKFR, on scene of an aid call after spotting a man lying down on the sidewalk outside a KFC. Haley Donwerth/staff photo.

Ryleigh Carr, a new firefighter with SKFR, on scene of an aid call after spotting a man lying down on the sidewalk outside a KFC. Haley Donwerth/staff photo.

It’s hard to predict a typical day as a SKFR firefighter. During Mirror Reporter Haley Donwerth’s ride-along at Station 63, they were in and out of the station all day. Haley Donwerth/staff photo.

It’s hard to predict a typical day as a SKFR firefighter. During Mirror Reporter Haley Donwerth’s ride-along at Station 63, they were in and out of the station all day. Haley Donwerth/staff photo.

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