Firefighters sometimes speak of having two families — the spouse and children at home and the band of brothers and sisters in the firehouse — but retiring Richland Fire Battalion Chief Ted Ricci has bridged the two for 35 years.
Ricci likes to say he joined the Richland Fire Department as a 19-year-old kid and retired as a 55-year-old grandfather.
He grew up on Washington’s west side, where a number of his neighbors were Seattle firefighters. Ricci called them good role models, something he one day aspired to be.
Now, more than 35 years later, Ricci is the mentor. He’s watched young men and women grow into experienced firefighters, and even shepherded some of his own brood into the family business — three of his five children are firefighters, including 28-year-old Brandon Ricci, who joined the Richland Fire Department in August.
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“To have one (child) specifically be at the department I was ... was an adventure,” Ted said.
Brandon’s addition to the Richland department highlights one of the many evolutions Ted has seen since joining the city’s ranks in the late ’70s. Ted recalled going through four to six weeks of training before climbing onto a fire truck. Nowadays, new recruits such as Brandon spend three months learning the craft before becoming full-fledged firefighters.
“We’ve raised the bar dramatically in how we train,” Ted Ricci said.
Training, of a different sort, eventually became Ted’s specialty. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he parlayed his knowledge of HAZMAT procedures into a teaching series on properly responding to the use of weapons of mass destruction.
He spent seven years beginning in 2002 traveling internationally and speaking about weapons of mass destruction preparedness training. The program was sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
He originally came to Richland because of the city’s size — he was looking for a landing spot with a population of 30,000 to 40,000. He didn’t necessarily account for the Tri-City’s metropolitan population and has sometimes wondered if operations wouldn’t improve and costs wouldn’t drop if the three cities combined fire departments.
“I think we could do better, and it’s something we should look at,” he said.
Regardless, Ted Ricci credits his career’s longevity in part to the professionalism and safety measures of the Richland Fire Department. He’s had his share of close calls — he recalled once partially falling through a roof while battling a blaze on a Fourth of July weekend; another time, he was standing in front of a fire holding a hose when he realized no one had turned on the water.
“What’s wrong with this situation?” Ted recalled asking himself when situations got particularly hairy.
After almost 36 years and hundreds of fire calls, Ted said one experience still shines the brightest — his first.
“My first fire run was in February, far north of Richland,” Ted recalled. “It was probably zero degrees.”
A superior took pity on him and let him ride back in an ambulance.
It’s those 35-plus years of experiences that have proven most valuable during Ted Ricci’s tenure with the department, said Richland Fire Chief Grant Baynes. He added that Ricci employs a “forward-looking perspective that has experience behind it.”
“The fire service was just so different, and it’s important to have that perspective in what we’re doing now,” Baynes said.
As a young firefighter, Baynes said it was considered a major accomplishment when colleagues reached the 25-year mark.
“Thirty-five years on the job ... is an amazing achievement,” Baynes said.
Ricci’s position likely will be filled internally, Baynes said. The Richland Fire Department began running battalion chief testing last week. All the candidates are existing Richland firefighters.
Although he spent recent days reflecting on his career, he now will have plenty of time to focus on the future. “I’m going to be a professional grandfather and travel the world,” he said.
His first stop will be Nice, France, later this month. It won’t be his first visit to the country. He recalled a trip to Paris several years ago when he was wearing a Richland Fire Department T-shirt while passing a Parisian firehouse. The firefighters spotted the shirt and waved Ricci in for a visit.
“I understood what they were saying; they understood what I was saying,” Ricci said. “Yet, we didn’t speak the same language.”
Instead, they shared the same bond.
Brandon Ricci knows that bond — he used to lean on his father’s advice while in school preparing to become a firefighter.
He would present his father with a scenario and ask how he would react. The two would talk firefighting and operations. But now, with Brandon just entering the ranks and his dad just leaving, the younger Ricci knows it’s time to blaze his own trail.
“Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve just been trying to do it on my own,” Brandon said.
Luckily, he’ll have plenty of brothers and sisters to help show him the way.