Lifelong friendships highlighted as Wash. FD celebrate 70 years
South Bay Fire Department FFs reflect on the department’s beginnings and changes over the years
By Joanna Hou
OLYMPIA, Wash. — At the South Bay Fire Department, a legend behind its formation has been passed down through generations.
While cities in Washington had fire services, rural areas did not. A serious fire in the area ended up being a disaster when nobody showed up. The solution laid within the community itself.
“Nobody came. That’s a pretty good motivator (to start a department),” said South Bay Fire Chief Brian VanCamp. “So, in 1953, a group of citizens, both in the South Bay area and in the North Olympia area of Boston Harbor, decided that they needed fire protection.”
Both neighborhoods went to the county courthouse on the same day in 1953 to submit ballot measures to create Fire Districts 7 and 8, said Janet Notarianni, an administrative assistant at South Bay Fire Department.
After voters approved the districts’ creation, VanCamp said a group of South Bay neighbors engaged in an effort to build the department from the ground up, locating a fire truck, coordinating logistics and ultimately moving into a fire station. In 2015, the two departments merged into South Bay Fire District 8.
This month, the South Bay Fire Department celebrates its 70th anniversary. VanCamp said there have been a lot of changes over the years, including a shift to a hybrid career/volunteer firefighting model, and increased efforts to boost transparency. But what has stayed constant is a sense of duty to the community at large.
“This organization has been one of the more forward-thinking organizations, thinking about ‘What are we doing? What do we need to do? What are the community’s needs? How do we meet those?’” VanCamp said. “We’ve been doing that for a long time.”
The early days
Rich Gleckler, a now-retired firefighter, first responder and fire commissioner, remembers the early days of the North Olympia Fire Department fondly. When he moved to Olympia to audit Washington’s Department of Transportation, a coworker in the accounting department encouraged him to become a volunteer with the North Olympia Fire Department.
“He said he was part of the fire department out here and he lived right across the street from the fire station,” he said. “He thought maybe I’d like it. So I went down a Monday later or something like that. And I never left.”
In the 1970s, volunteer fire departments such as North Olympia ran on a much more casual basis, Gleckler said. They received a couple hundred calls a year, and used to get alerted to aid calls from a siren on top of a station. People would sometimes dispatch to addresses from their own vehicles, and most of the procedure was self-taught.
Even when the department switched to pagers, Ben Dicke, another now-retired volunteer firefighter and first responder at South Bay Fire, said firefighters were expected to remember addresses after hearing them once.
“It was hard. I almost didn’t remember (the addresses), I had to depend on a lot of the other guys,” Dicke said, laughing. “Or you could get on the radio and call Capcom at the time and ask them, ‘Please repeat the address.’ And then everyone in the county would hear you ask them for the address.”
Sometimes, the department faced unusual challenges. Gleckler remembers responding to a call where a yellowjacket nest blocked a sidedoor firefighters were trying to access, and another call where he found a driver stuck between the branches of a tree.
But he also remembers performing CPR and saving lives during his service.
“When you made a good, successful save, it was really rewarding,” he said. “I just liked to be able to help the community.”
There was a strong sense of internal community too. During events such as summer picnics and Christmas parties, Gleckler said he found himself connecting with neighboring families. Many firefighters in South Bay are from families where three or four generations have served.
VanCamp joined with his father, who was also a fire chief, and uncle in 1973. At one point, he and his dad, mom and a brother all worked at the department.
“I was really invested in it as a volunteer,” he said. “Johnson Point station, where my uncle was, we had a neighborhood up there that, we were all volunteers at the Johnson Point station. And it was a little social group that we had out there.”
Many of Dicke’s closest friends now are still the people he worked with at the fire department. They were the people who convinced him to take on first responder duties outside of his firefighting work. Today, VanCamp said 80% to 85% of calls responders get are for first responder aid.
Changes in volunteer firefighting
But training to become an emergency services provider is much more difficult now than it was for Dicke then. Instead of taking one class, first responders are now equipped with many more skills that they obtain through training. It’s changes like these that VanCamp said have made volunteering much more involved than in previous years.
These changes are taking a toll on volunteer firefighting. At South Bay, and other departments around the state, volunteer firefighters numbers have dropped from about 19,000 to about 10,000, according to the Washington State Fire Fighters’ Association.
“To be a volunteer requires a lot of training, and continuous training after they get their initial training, in firefighting, emergency medical service, and hazardous materials. It requires a lot,” VanCamp said. “I think generally, unless you’re trying to go that direction as a career, there’s not a lot of it that would entice a traditional volunteer.”
The department now has a full-time career staff of 18 to respond to calls and work in management, VanCamp said. Ten to 15 years ago, volunteering was still enough, he added.
Recruiting and retaining new volunteers proves challenging, especially because career firefighters are in demand, meaning volunteers get hired out quickly. Providing training and equipment for volunteers is not always the most cost-efficient, but VanCamp said it’s an investment South Bay still budgets for.
“Because of the limitations that we have in our revenue, we will continue to be dependent on having both,” he said. “We need a corps of career staff that we can schedule and make sure they’re here and everything, but it will never be large enough to do the full job.”
The department shows no signs of slowing down, and responds to about 1,300 calls a year, VanCamp said. It’s always prepared to provide aid and help respond to urban fires, and Notarianni said volunteers are key to staffing engines and providing other crucial work at South Bay.
The next recruitment and training cycle for the department is in September.
“It is very fulfilling and makes you feel really good about yourself, being able to do this service for the community,” Dicke said. “It is dangerous, and exciting and scary. But I made a lot of friends that I have lifetime relationships with.”