VANCOUVER — Vancouver Fire Department Battalion Chief Rick Steele says firefighting hasn’t changed much over the years.
“You put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Steele said.
But, he says, fire itself has changed.
“Everything that’s made now — houses, clothing, furniture — is made from an oil-based product,’’ Steele said. “So fires burn hotter and faster than they ever have before.”
Another thing that has changed is the place of emergency medical services. When Steele started in 1984, there were no paramedics in the Vancouver Fire Department. Now, he estimates, 80 percent of calls are EMS calls.
The son of a firefighter, Steele became a captain in the mid-90s, and then, five years ago, one of two battalion chiefs, in charge of six engine companies at five stations in the eastern half of the city.
The best part of the job, he says, is that every day is different.
“I couldn’t stand to be behind a desk eight hours a day for 40 years,’’ Steele said. “But I show up somewhere and, ‘Huh! I haven’t seen that before!’ I’m excited to go to work every day. ”
The hardest part?
“You see a lot of things that human beings are not supposed to see on a regular basis,’’ Steele said. “The stress of human suffering gets to you. And it gets harder as the shifts go by. Now, even when I hear about a bad call, I have associated stress. Someone else goes on a bad call, and I flash back to all the bad calls I’ve been on. That’s been hard.”
When he can find time he unwinds working on his ‘68 Camaro. But that’s not his main source of healing.
“Coaching is unbelievable therapy for me,” says Steele, head coach of the Class 2A Hockinson Hawks football team. “The baddest day of football doesn’t touch the baddest day on the job. Coaching takes my mind away.”
Steele says he always wanted to be a coach. Then, in 1986, a friend of his, the late Hudson’s Bay biology teacher Bill Brown, became head coach of a new freshman football team at Bay.
“He asked if I wanted to help,’’ Steele said. “And I said, ‘It sounds like fun.’ So I went to (Head Coach) Hugh Wyatt and said, ‘Coach, I’d like to come back and coach with you.’”
Steele was an assistant coach for 17 years — first at Bay, then at La Center and Prairie — before becoming head coach at the newly opened Hockinson High School.
In his 12 years there, Steele has led the Hawks to six Class 2A GSHL league championships and, in the last three years, two trips to the WIAA State Championship playoffs. But Steele is quick to share the credit.
“Those coaches that are there, those guys are fantastic people,’’ Steele said. “They’re good men.”
The same could be said of Steele, who has developed a reputation for caring more about the kids than he does about winning football games. His latest foray into building young men is something he calls “Man Class.’’ It started small — with a handshake.
“It shocked me one day,” he says. “I’d shake hands with these guys and get these limp handshakes, and they’d look away.”
So he taught his players how to shake hands firmly, with eye contact. He had them practice on the coaches.
“That was probably three to four years ago,’’ Steele said. “And now they shake all the coaches’ hands every day. We didn’t make them do that. I couldn’t believe how readily they jumped on that. And it got me thinking.”
Now Steele leads an optional class after school on Wednesdays. He says most of the team attends.
Steele shows a short video, then leads a discussion.
“‘Here’s my phone,’ I’ll say,’’ Steele said. “And I’ll open it up. ‘Look at it. Look through my photos. There’s no porn. There’s nothing that shouldn’t be there. Now let me see your phone.’ And I can see them starting to squirm. And I tell them, ‘I pledge as your football coach, you’ll never catch me with stuff on my phone that shouldn’t be there.’”
Other classes have dealt with how to treat young women.
“It’s an interesting conversation,’’ Steele said. “I tell them my daughter Julianne is so important to me. I delivered her. I was the first person she saw in this world. I’ve been her hero.”
“Someday you will have daughters,’’ Steele said. “How dear those young girls will be to you. Would you want her to meet someone like you? If your answer is no, then the way you’re treating (your girlfriend) is not the right way. Girls were not placed here for your amusement or use. They are human beings that have dreams just like you do.”
Steele has plans to expand the class, bringing in guest speakers and inviting the players to invite their friends.
“They love listening to this stuff,’’ Steele said. “They’ve never been told it before. We teach them math and English and send them off. But this is so important.”
“These are my boys. And this is what I like best: when kids I coach become good people. Good community members. It brightens my day to see them succeed.”