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Fighting fires is often a family affair, especially for South Whidbey clan
While there is a sense of brotherhood among many firefighters, serving as volunteer first-responders is truly a family affair for one South Whidbey family.
“Between all of us there are more than 200 years of community service,” said South Whidbey Fire/EMS Commissioner Kenon Simmons about his family.
Simmons’ dad, Carl Simmons, was with the department as a volunteer for 50 years. Carl passed away in 2011 and there is now an award given to a department member each year in his honor.
Carl and his generation set the standard for family involvement back in the day. Carl’s brother Roy and his cousin Gordon volunteered with the fire district along with Carl. Carl had joined the department in 1954 (the South Whidbey fire district was founded in 1950). He was the longest serving volunteer in department history, inching out Gordon who retired after 47 years.
Kenon Simmons is hoping to get up there with his father’s generation.
“For me it’s about the community service,” said Simmons, who followed in Carl’s footsteps in 1981.
“It’s a small community. My wife asked if I would do it in another, bigger community. I probably wouldn’t.”
Kenon’s cousin Kevin Simmons got the ball rolling for the latest generation of volunteers when he joined the department in 1997. He now serves as an EMT and firefighter and he inspired those around him.
“I saw how much fun he was having. So I jumped in,” said Jeff Simmons, who joined in 1998 as a firefighter.
“And I joined because they did it,” added EMT Melissa Simmons, who signed up with the department in 2000.
There was certainly awareness within the family for this form of community service, but it’s the job itself and the camaraderie that has kept them engaged over the years. The work is rewarding and challenging, Melissa said.
“I enjoy doing it,” she said. “People say thanks and it makes it all worth it.”
Her brothers quickly point out that Melissa held a record for most responses as an EMT for some time — and almost nothing could stop her.
“This little guy has slowed me down a bit,” she said, bouncing her 7-month-old son, Domenic, on her hip. It appears that the future of this family tradition may be ensured, as Domenic has already spent his share of time hanging out at the fire department.
Proud of family bonds
There is pride among those who got a chance to serve alongside the older Simmons generation.
“The Clinton station was unofficially the Simmons station for awhile,” Jeff said.
“Yes, I think there were five or six of us at the station at some point,” Kenon added, as they shared a laugh.
While the Simmons family assembles an impressive amount of years in service, they are hardly the only example of relatives standing side-by-side serving the community within the department.
Among others are Jon and Gary Gabelein; the father and daughter team of the Hughes family, and the mother-daughter team of the McMahon family — just to name a few.
While South Whidbey firefighter dynasties like the Simmons’ and Gabeleins are certainly something to be proud of, Kenon Simmons said all volunteers within the department have a unique bond.
“We may share the same last name, but the entire department is a family,” he said.
Fire Chief Rusty Palmer couldn’t agree more.
“We are very much a family,” Palmer said. “There are times when our lives depend upon each other. It doesn’t get much closer than that.”
Palmer not only considers the active duty volunteers part of this family, but all those who support them.
“Our family includes all of those members’ families who support them being in the department,” he said. Without the support of the wives, husbands and children, who allow their loved ones to run out to a fire or accident in the middle of the night, the volunteers would not show up.
“Like every family, there are times when we disagree or don’t communicate, but when it really matters folks step up,” Palmer said.