One look into today’s South Bay Fire Department tells you a lot about the station’s 70-year history serving the community as Thurston County Fire Protection District 8. The red fire engines housed in the apparatus bay span the years, beginning with the 1954 International Harvester R-180 rig and pumper now used mainly for parades and ending with the shiny and modern 2020 Pierce Enforcer that is critical for today’s emergency responses.
These antique-to-contemporary fire trucks reflect how the department has changed with the times, keeping current on the best methods to serve the community’s emergency response needs. And it all began seven decades ago with local volunteer efforts by neighbors, families and friends.
North Olympia and South Bay Fire Departments Formed by Local Volunteers in 1953
Local groups formed both of the departments in 1953. Back then, it was an all-volunteer staff of neighbors, families and friends focused on putting out fires in the unincorporated North Olympia and South Bay areas. They served in two districts, No. 7 (North Olympia) and No. 8 (South Bay), both of which merged in 2015. Volunteers began with loaned pumping equipment and trucks they had to park in donated spaces at a school bus barn. In 1954, the first fire stations were built on Boston Harbor and South Bay Roads. Over the years other stations were added on Johnson Point Road, Puget Beach Road, Zangle Road and Libby Road.
Fire Chief Brian VanCamp lives in the Johnson Point area and was recruited along with his father and neighbors to join the department as volunteers in 1973. “We started as a community group,” he says of his department’s origins. “It was a strong, local fabric of the community, like a grange.”
His father began as the mechanic and became the volunteer fire chief. VanCamp’s mother and uncle also served as volunteers. “At one point there were five VanCamps at that fire station,” he says. VanCamp moved up the ranks and was appointed volunteer chief when his father retired in 1996. In 1999 he became the first full-time career chief.
South Bay Fire Department Adapts to Emergency Response Changes
While the department started out primarily fighting fires, VanCamp says its role enlarged to add emergency medical services (EMS) responses. The public wanted round-the-clock EMS in addition to fire suppression. A national sea-change was underway, galvanized in part by the 1970s TV medical-drama “Emergency!” set in Los Angeles. That show has been credited with popularizing EMS and motivating fire districts nationally to expand their services.
This new approach sparked local efforts to add more emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics, create 911 systems, implement heightened training and establish firefighter/EMT career paths. When Thurston County Medic One was founded in 1974, EMS calls became a significant portion of all of the Thurston County’s fire departments. For South Bay, it meant growing from 32 calls in 1974 to 1,290 calls in 2022. “The expectations of our customers increased,” says VanCamp. “Especially with EMS. That changed everything. It increased training and call volumes.”
While the department began as a small volunteer group, today the district is a government agency with a team of 35 volunteers and 18 career responders, plus administrative staff and two chaplains. A five-member elected board of commissioners oversees the district. The district provides fire protection and emergency medical services, including fire prevention, fire suppression, emergency rescue and basic life support response to more than 13,000 residents within its 33 square mile area in the Boston Harbor and Johnson Point areas.
Volunteers Remain Vital to South Bay Fire Department’s Emergency Responses
In celebrating its 70th anniversary, the district underscores that its volunteers continue to be vital to the mission of providing critical services. “And we want to create a space for volunteers to enjoy it,” VanCamp says of the South Bay experience. “We want this to be a place they want to come to.”
Like VanCamp, many career staff began as volunteers. In 1992, Fire Commissioner Doug Kilpatrick joined as a volunteer. “My neighbor recruited me,” he says. “He lived down at the end of my road.” Kilpatrick spent 26 years as a volunteer firefighter and medical first responder, retiring as assistant chief. Eighteen months later, he was elected as a fire commissioner.
Maintaining a sufficient volunteer roster is more challenging than it was seven decades ago. Kilpatrick says volunteers must be trained in firefighting and EMT duties. Unlike past volunteers comprised primarily of local neighbors, VanCamp says today some volunteers live outside the district, often moving on to paid positions at other stations. Volunteers serve in shifts and typically stay overnight at the station, which is a time commitment. VanCamp says they have about a 30 percent turnover rate of volunteers. “We can never have enough people,” he explains.
Volunteers receive a stipend, training to become certified, a pension plan and more. If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a volunteer Firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician please see our website: southbayfire.com or contact Janet Notarianni at email@example.com or 360.491.5320.
South Bay Fire District 8
3506 Shincke Road NE, Olympia