Capt. William Furlong left the Kenai Fire Department after commanding a shift for the last time before his retirement Tuesday.
With him left three decades of firefighting experience and service.
"He's been a real asset to the department, one of those guys you hate to see go," said Kenai Fire Chief Scott Walden. "He's really good with strategies and tactics. He's a guy who really thinks quickly and on his feet, he knows what is going on around him."
Furlong, 53, has been a firefighter for 32 years. He started out when he was just a teen-ager, volunteering with the department in his hometown of Maple Valley, Wash., when he was a junior in high school. At that point he had no burning desire to make firefighting a career.
"Who knows what makes any teen-ager do anything?" he said. "It just looked like something exciting to do."
After graduating from high school, Furlong went to Olympic Junior College in Bremerton, Wash., to persue his original career path -- special education. Furlong enjoys working with children, and special education seemed to be an ideal way for him to do that, he said.
After two years at the junior college, Furlong spent two years in the U.S. Army. He was a heavy equipment operator and spent a year in Vietnam. He was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1970. Furlong went back to college at Central Washington State College in Ellensburg, Wash., and continued to pursue a degree in special education. Before completing the degree, however, he took a job as a firefighter and then an engineer with the King County Fire District 40. From there Furlong joined the Renton Fire Department. He spent six years in that department working as a firefighter and medic.
In 1978, Furlong took a vacation to the Kenai Peninsula. All it took was one trip to the peninsula to convince him this was the place he wanted to be. The Kenai Fire Department just happened to be hiring at the time, so he applied on a Wednesday, was interviewed the next day and was immediately told he could have a job if he wanted one. Furlong took one month to return to Washington, sell his house, pack his belongings and drive to Kenai, which he has called home for the last 24 years.
At the Kenai Fire Department, Furlong spent five years as a firefighter and 19 as a captain. A captain works as a shift supervisor, responds to emergencies with the crew and acts as an incident commander and keeps the personnel busy when they're not responding to a call, "besides hiding out and doing what a supervisor does," he joked.
"I like the captain position because it's a supervisor post but I still get to stay on the line and be active on emergencies," Furlong said.
Being a captain at the Kenai Fire Department has its benefits as well.
"The camaraderie between the personnel and the family atmosphere in fire service is really nice," he said. "It's a very close-knit program. There's not a large number of people who work here so you get to know each other really well. Between the city administration and the fire department there's a good working environment, so it's kind of a fun place to work."
Not all aspects of a working in a fire station are fun and games, however.
"There's cons working in this job," he said. "You have to deal with death and suffering and that certainly isn't an enjoyable part of it. The real sad part is you go to people that you know and you can't do anything for them. Every time it happens you have to deal with the crisis of it and you have to live through it."
As a captain, Furlong both participates in and facilitates critical incident debriefings, which are held at the station after particularly difficult or traumatic calls. The debriefings give the responders a chance to talk about what they deal with so they don't have to go home and deal with it alone, Furlong said.
"It takes a specific person to be able to be a firefighter and medic and be able to go home and live a normal life after facing trauma and death," he said.
The flip side of dealing with tragedy is the opportunity to save lives.
"Just being able to help people, that makes you prideful being able to say 'if it wasn't for our actions that person may have died,'" he said. "Every time you go out and do something good and save somebody it is just as impactful as the ones that end in tragedy."
In his 24 years of service at the Kenai Fire Department, Furlong has distinguished himself as an example of leadership and service in the department and community.
Furlong's file at the station is full of letters of accommodation and appreciation from state and local entities for emergency calls he's responded to as well as fire prevention and fire education service programs he's completed. Furlong was the responding captain in both the Fire Call of the Year in 2000 and Emergency Medical Service Call of the Year in 2001, Walden said.
One of the most prestigious accommodations Furlong has received was from Gov. Walter Hickel in 1992 thanking him for his work in organizing the Shaker 3 earthquake preparedness drill, which Hickel called the largest exercise of its kind ever put on by any state. Probably the most unique recognitions was for his efforts to resuscitate a "smoked" turkey, instead of just deciding to eat it, injured in a barn fire on Furlong's own homestead, Walden said.
In his years at the Kenai Fire Department, Furlong has been a certified fire instructor, giving some of the first captain training courses ever offered at the department. Now that he's retiring, the department will promote someone internally into the position and hire a new firefighter to maintain the same number of employees. Although his position may be filled, a void will still be left from the years of experience and knowledge Furlong takes with him.
"That was his life. It's more than half his life that he's been a firefighter, so it was hard for him to retire," said Furlong's wife, Leolani. "They're going to miss him, he's a really good leader. He's like a type A personality. If something's broken he's going to fix it, and say 'let's fix this now.' To be in a captain position was really good for him."
Though it may be difficult at first to adjust to getting up at 8 a.m. and going to work every day like a "normal person," it was time to retire, Furlong said. He's retiring a year shy of 25 years, but for a good reason. Furlong and his wife plan to build a bed and breakfast in Hawaii, where Leolani is from, and spend the winters there. They will return in the summers, since nothing could keep Furlong from pursuing his hobbies of hunting, fishing and flying in Alaska.
"He can't get away from it," Leolani said. "That's in his blood and I don't think he could ever leave that."
Flying his Citabria plane is a particularly favorite pastime of Furlong's. He has flown for 10 years. That hobby may be dangerous but, like in his career, Furlong put safety first.
"I never did worry about him because he's very careful," Leolani said. "He never takes unnecessary risks either with himself or the men he worked with."
Retirement will give Furlong an opportunity to relax a bit and spend more time with his family, which includes his wife, three children and nine grandchildren, but he certainly won't be sitting around doing nothing. The day after he finished his last shift at the fire department, he went to work at Spenard Builders Supply. He's done a lot of construction work over the years, and the position will help him in his goal to build the house in Hawaii.
Leolani may be happy to have Furlong around more, but the Kenai Fire Department is sad to see him go.
"He's got a lot of experience leaving with him," Walden said. "There's a lot to learn from him just by working with him."
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