"Like father, like son"
June 11, 2008 · Updated 10:59 AM
"Though Chief Steve Bigelow is preparing to step down just as his son, Chris, is beginning with Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue, passing the torch seems an inappropriate description.A better phrase might be passing the flashlight, Steve said.According to family lore, Steve, 55, wanted to be a fireman when he was a little boy. My dad said ... I decided at 5 years old I wanted to be a fireman, he said.Steve said he grew up a normal boy in Washington and Oregon, working at a Sears store before attending Saint Martin's College in Lacey. While in college, he joined a Sears management training program and volunteered with a local fire department.When I hit my third year of college on my birthday - I was 21 - I moved into the Lacey fire department as a resident volunteer. I started in the fire service on my birthday, he said. Aug. 31 will mark Steve's 25th year in the business.In the late 1960s, Uncle Sam borrowed Steve for two years. He was called into fire duty again to fight a tundra fire in Alaska. Someone had seen in his file that he had firefighting experience and put him in charge of a group of soldiers sent to battle the blaze creeping beneath the tundra. Their commanding officers dropped them into the Alaskan wilderness and told them to have the fire under control in a week.When his duty was up, a Sears management consolidation plan moved him to Portland. By then, he'd met Judy.We ended up getting married and buying our first house in Beaver Creek, Ore., he said. While Steve worked for Sears, Judy worked as a microbiologist.Fire work always followed him, though. Someone heard he had fire experience and asked him to join the department. He left Sears when a vacancy became available for assistant chief fire marshal.In 1980, he heard about a job opening for a fire chief in a little town in Washington. He soon signed on as the first fire chief in Silverdale.It was all volunteer except one person, who did all sorts of stuff, he said. The paid firefighter was also the typist, checked the oil and answered phones. Silverdale's population was probably close to 8,000.With three children, the Bigelows moved from Beaver Creek.The wife gave up a wonderful job to make the move. I've thanked her over the years. She made a sacrifice. She could have said no, and we'd probably still be in Oregon, Steve said. That was an emotional time.Though Silverdale was small, Steve knew things were going to change rapidly. The first week I got in, they brought in earth-moving equipment, he said. Construction was underway to build Brownsville Highway into the highway it is today, he said.Under his leadership, the fire district embarked on a five-year plan to prepare for an expected population surge. We went from a population of 7,000 to 9,000 to what we now take care of - 40,000. The population increase brought new buildings, traffic and schools - They were building those like crazy. We operated off a master plan system to keep up with the community, he said.Chris, the oldest of the three children, was 9 when the family moved to Silverdale. From my impression, sitting on the other side of the dinner table at home, he didn't really express an interest in becoming a firefighter, Steve said. He joined the station in Poulsbo and came home and announced he had joined. I was excited he wanted to serve the community.Chris joined the station in 1991, but his familiarity with the job goes way back. I've been around the fire service all my life, he said. Chris graduated from Olympic High School and went to Olympic College. I needed some college credit and a fire tactics class at OC looked fun, he said. In '91, I became a volunteer for the Keyport Fire Station. I was there for one year, then I got a job as a resident at Station 15. I was there one year as a resident, and then got hired with the Bangor Fire Department. In August 1993, he married his wife, Denise. I was (at Bangor) five years before I was laid off in '97 due to engine company cut backs. Then I was hired onto the Puget Sound Naval Station shipyard.During his service with the other fire stations, Chris applied to Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue. I've been trying to get on with this department since 1992, he said. The tests are real competitive. You pretty much have to be numero uno. It takes a lot of years to get here, a lot of studying.Chris is on a one-year probation period with CK Fire and Rescue, during which he'll be tested monthly on procedures, maps, equipment and a battery of other CKFR policies. If he fails a test, he's out. Between studying, he cleans and drills.He wanted to work at CK Fire and Rescue because the hours are good here and the variety of calls, he said. Chris currently works one full day and then has two days off, which he spends with his kids: a step daughter, Rachel, 14, a daughter, Christine, 5, and a 9-month-old son, Zachary.He remembers his dad often was busy with work, something Steve said he might do differently.When I first got here in 1980, I went to every single alarm. I was always gone and it was hard when the kids were growing up. They finally understand and expressed that to us, he said.He was gone a lot, Chris said, but he always made time to spend, like coaching soccer. I can see the type of person he is - he provided for us. I want to be able to provide the same things for my family that he did for us.Steve likened running the fire district to running a large corporation. We have over $3 billion worth of assets, which is the community.We've been grounded on some great principles. We'll continue to serve and step up to the plate in the community. Customer service will continue to be a priority. We need to stay real active with ordinances and codes to keep the public as safe as possible, he said. And the district is going to have to stay up-to-date with technological advances, he added.Those tenets are what Chris spends his days studying and applying. Without taxpayers, you don't have a job. We try to treat them all with respect.There have been changes in the administration. It's more stream-lined, efficient. There are engines being purchased. A medic unit just got purchased. There's lots of good stuff happening, Chris said.Steve plans to stay busy during retirement, maybe taking a part-time job in fire service or his other love - water.I would hope that he gets to do what he wants to do. He likes to sail ... I hope he keeps busy, Chris said. I have no doubt in my mind that he will keep busy. He's a goer.Steve's retirement will take effect Dec. 31, 2000. An executive search service is seeking his replacement from a national pool of potential candidates. By the end of the year, they are expected to begin interviewing.In the meantime, Chris will continue training. He has pretty specific aspirations for his future in fire service.I want to be the chief, he said. I'm gonna' be the chief some day."