June 1, 2023
Richard Abbott Knight from Allyn was born July 28, 1935 in Seattle to James R. and Sarah (Best) Knight. He and his brother Emmett moved to Allyn in 1943 with their mom, and lived there all his life. He passed on May 20, 2023 at his home with his family after a battle with cancer. Those who knew “Chief” Knight knew he never gave up and he fought a valiant struggle right to the end.
Richard loved to dance, travel and explore new places. He and Bonnie toured extensively and he never lost his curiosity about other places and the people they met including a firefighter in Venice that still keeps in touch with them. He enjoyed trips in their RV throughout the states with his dog Chewie on the dashboard being his navigator. He was great at “tinkering”. When something was broken, that was when he started tinkering and made things work again. He enjoyed spending time with his family and was devoted to Allyn. He was an active member of the Allyn Community Association and involved in many projects to benefit the town.
There were many things he was involved in but his main love was Fire District 5. He was a Shipfitter at PSNS in his early years while volunteering at the fire department eventually leaving there to become a full-time paid Chief at the district. He helped form the first fire department for Allyn and Victor in 1953 and served until 2011 when he retired. Under his direction the department grew from a small local department to being the largest district in Mason County. There were many milestones along the way and as the guy says “and now the rest of the story”.
On Wednesday July 8th, 1953 the Allyn Community Club discussed concerns that the community was still fighting fires with buckets, garden hoses and shovels which, needless to say, were not very effective. The possible development of a fire department was suggested so the Community meeting was adjourned and the Allyn-Victor Fire Department was formed. Ross Denton who owned the ‘Fix-it’ shop where the fire station is now, provided space to house the engines. Commissioners were appointed and they selected the first Chief. Their equipment consisted of two old engines, one a 1928 LeFrance, which is still owned by the district and a 1943 Dodge. In1954, a third truck was added. It was years before they could afford to buy new vehicles. It’s a good thing vehicles back then could be repaired without a degree in computing.
In 1955, at the ripe old age of 19 and the youngest member, Richard was elected Chief by the others and Commissioners voted to officially appoint him to the position. A position he held until June 30, 2011. After serving for 50 years the International Fire Chief’s Association recognized him as the longest serving Chief in their Association, quite an honor. He went on to serve another five years after that.
Early on there was a siren in Allyn that would alert volunteers that there was an emergency. Phones were set up in several locations and when calls came in they would sound the alarm. Later a line was put in at the old Allyn House nursing home on the waterfront across from the station, and their staff would answer it after hours. Later a dispatch center was set up in the Allyn station and was in use into the 1960’s. The station was manned by volunteer ‘sleepers’ nights and weekends. In October of 1955 a reconditioned ambulance was purchased from Tacoma after six local residents signed a note for the purchase which replaced an older unit that barely met the needs. The new (used) unit provided service to the Agate, Mason Lake, Grapeview and Vaughn area in addition to Allyn and Victor. Subscriptions were $2 per family per year which provided subscribers with ambulance service. Although not officially part of the district they managed and helped fund it by sharing proceeds from weekly fundraising dances at the Victor Hall, the remainder of funds going to support the fire department. There were 28 men in the fire department that had advanced first aid certificates and were allowed to drive it. By 1959 it became apparent that fundraising and subscriptions were not enough to keep the service going and a major decision was made for the Fire Department to officially take over the service.
An interesting side note of particular interest was Chief Knight’s recognition of the importance of women being involved in the department and very early on women started riding on the ambulances on aid calls. Shortly thereafter, several women who had been watching while the men did the firefighting came to the Chief with a request to be trained on the equipment so they could fight fires during the day while all the men were at work. By the mid 1970’s there were eight women serving as full-fledged firefighters and aid car attendants, four of whom were officers. At one station they formed what was affectionately known as “The Granny Brigade” composed of five ladies of a certain age. They served the district for many years. The Chief never had a thought that women couldn’t drive and run equipment as well as any of the men.
In those early years several nearby communities had established small fire departments but were not large enough to fight fires effectively and had little to no medical services. Chief Knight helped them by providing training on their equipment and first aid classes. By 1961 Mason and Benson Lakes communities saw the benefit of being part of District 5 and had requested and were annexed to the district. In June of 1965, Station 3 was built at the corner of Mason Lake and Mason Benson Roads not only to service that area but also address a communication issue. Mason County is set up with two phone exchanges; 275 and 426. The north half of the district was in the 275 prefix and the south was in the 426 area. A dispatch center was put in the building with lines serving both areas to avoid transferring the call from Shelton to the Allyn dispatch center thereby delaying the response. Within a year, a new communications tower was built on a hill nearby which could reach all areas of the county and all volunteers and vehicles had been supplied with VHF radios. By 1977, it was a fulltime, fully manned 24-hour dispatch center, with four dispatchers and the Allyn dispatch center was moved to Station 3 at Mason Lake. In 1981, they recorded 858 calls and realized the need to be tied into the 911 emergency systems. In 1990 the Enhanced 911 system in use today was activated in part due to Chief Knight’s determination to get it.
By 1970 the word was getting around of the value of working together since District 5 had more equipment, better training and volunteers to assist with their emergencies. Several other areas asked to join the district including Pioneer School District, Lake Limerick, Deer Creek, Spencer and Phillips Lakes, Timber Lakes, Agate, Bayshore and John’s Prairie. With these additions the district grew to be the largest in Mason County covering 150 square miles extending from Shelton City Limits to Pierce County, with 11 stations and 75 volunteers many of whom were trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s), as well as firefighters. Within a few years, Harstene and McMikken Islands were added and the Harstene Island, Pickering and West Mason Lake stations were built.
In the Fall of 1977, things were changing very quickly and residents passed a levy to purchase two new modular life support ambulances and three volunteers, including Chief Knight, went through many hours of training to be certified paramedics providing true advanced life support services; some of the first in Western Washington. This necessitated being able to communicate directly with Harrison Hospital which was too far away for VHF radios so the department upgraded to UHF equipment in each ambulance to allow medical units to talk directly with them while on scene and en route to their facility. The volunteer paramedics were paid $15 per day to be available to respond on a 24-hour basis. The district was finally able to pay paramedics and allow 24 hour per day service. By 1981, volunteer ranks grew to 120 manning three ambulances, a rescue truck with extrications equipment, 12 fire engines, two tankers and seven auxiliaries who performed fundraising and support services.
You’ve heard the term “Good, better, best, never let it rest until good is better and better is best.” From the very beginning of the department, members were expected to spend two hours at their station every Tuesday evening learning about the equipment, firefighting and various skills well beyond firefighting. Chief Knight was all about training; as soon as you became a firefighter with first-aid training, you were encouraged to complete EMT training, then after that, well, maybe you could become an instructor. Oh, you can drive an engine? How about learning how to drive and operate a 5,000-gallon tender? Good driver? You can be an evaluator for new drivers. Oh, and while you are here why don’t you guys teach the new members how to check fluids in the vehicles and run the pumps.
As a paramedic he knew what to expect from all of us; every report we did for medical calls was reviewed by him and sent back with lovely little notes in red ink! Sometimes frustrating? Yes, but it pushed us to become a highly respected district with good comments from Harborview Hospital and others. Oh, and don’t forget wildland firefighting. Thanks in large part to Assistant Chief Mike Snyder, District 5 wildland firefighting crews became recognized, even in other states, as a well-trained and highly effective wildland fighting force with the extra benefit of being trained to fight structure fires. This was a skill they used often when fighting fires in the “Urban-Rural Interface”, in other words, when trees met houses. They also responded to major fires and emergencies throughout Washington and in other states. A crew went down to New Orleans to help with recovery when it was underwater from a major hurricane, and flooding in Mississippi.
In 1978 he saw a need for fire investigation so he had a couple members trained and they became official fire inspectors. They were a huge help when determining the cause of fires and if it was arson, which it turned out to be more than once.
The training went well beyond the members. Over the years he and other members of the department taught First Aid and CPR classes to school kids as young as 3rd grade. And he encouraged high school kids to become junior members and at 16 full members. Those kids learned a lot about responsibility and leadership at a very young age. Over the years classes were taught throughout the area. It is impossible to number the people’s lives that have been touched through his years as a paramedic and the training he provided, and later from the thousands of individuals that received training from other members of the department because of his leadership. Speaking of recruiting teens into the department, a good number of them went on to pursue careers as firefighters or medical personnel and several are still with the department. One in particular, Jeff Snyder, followed in his dad’s footsteps and in August 2022 was appointed Chief of the department. That’s a lot of years of dedication and hard work in the department. Up until the late 1990’s, it was truly a family affair. It wasn’t unusual for mom, dad and the kids to be members of the department. Bringing the kids along at a young age to help out with things around the station and later become members. It was a tremendous way to instill commitment and duty to help out your community.
One thing Richard did that very few people realized. Stations were placed strategically to provide fast service to the communities and he was forever working to get better equipment, by doing so Insurance rates in those areas were reduced by as much as 45%.
In 1990 the station at Mason Lake grew to include two more truck bays at a very reasonable price for just the materials. This was made possible, again, by the wonderful and loyal volunteers who actually built it. By then the dispatch center known as Firecom, was well established and the administrative office was housed in a manufactured building next door. Out back was a parking area for old engines, pumpers, and other equipment in various stages of repair by the district’s vehicle maintenance personnel. Jokes were made about the Chief never throwing anything away but that’s how he was raised and his tight hand on the finances allowed the district to purchase the items he felt were most needed. To him that was always the newest, most advanced medical equipment he could get that would help save lives. For the people it was actually a pretty good trade off, a source of frustration sometimes for the crews but never the less it worked out best for those with life threatening conditions. A basic goal of his was to provide layered service for medical patients. There were EMT’s throughout the district and on many occasions provided that critical first contact with patients to help them survive until a paramedic could reach them.
The need for paramedic service increased rapidly as the population grew. In addition to over 100 volunteers and four paramedics including the Chief, it soon became apparent that more were needed. For many years volunteer EMT’s manned the Aid Units, treated and transported Basic Life Support patients to a hospital, and members would sign up for shifts with a paramedic at one of the stations. Some went on to become Intravenous Technicians (could start IV’s) and intubate patients, bringing an extra level of service for those in need and more help for the paramedics. But that too became a challenge. Another paramedic was hired and six of the early firefighter/EMT’s were hired to work full time with them. Eventually the staff grew with three stations manned full time.
Throughout the years community service was part of the deal and volunteers helped to provide such services as demonstrations with a smokehouse for kids to learn what to do in case of fire and at Allyn Days, taking blood pressures. When asked they would bring a ladder and help local merchants put up Christmas lights, host a Halloween Haunted House and put together Christmas baskets for those in need. One year the regular, rather robust Santa got called away at the last minute and Chief Knight donned the over-sized Santa outfit. Those who knew Richard know that he barely gained a pound over the years which prompted one of the youngsters to remark “Gee Santa you’re looking very fit this year”. There was always the awareness that he could not have done it himself and was truly grateful for all the people who supported the district and made all that had been accomplished possible. Once a year, members were rewarded with a Christmas party for the families and an awards banquet to recognize the professionalism, hard work and dedication of those who made the district one of the finest in the state. As time passed and the world moved on, state testing requirements kept changing and becoming stricter, and volunteer numbers dropped. At the same time volunteerism in general was diminishing which required hiring more paid staff. While many felt something special was lost in this transition, time marches on and changes happen. While there are still volunteer members in the department their training and qualifications have had to grow with the rest of the department.
For 58 years, Fire District 5 was Richard’s heart and soul and even though he accomplished so much there was one final and huge goal he had worked toward for years – bringing District 5 and the City of Shelton together. After years of discussions and planning, the city entered into an agreement with District 5 to work together to provide fire and medical services throughout all of central Mason County. By then the district had become known as Central Mason Fire & EMS and in 2022, they responded to 9,319 calls.
In a dedication ceremony members that had served under him made various comments about their experiences working with him, sometimes not as easy as others…, but they all shared their gratitude and expressed the sentiment that “We are who we are because of you Chief.”
Richard leaves behind his loving wife Bonnie, brothers Jim and Emmett, and Sister Maureen. Son Richard Ross Knight (wife Jennifer) in Allyn, daughters Pamala and Anita Marsh (Tom), Melanee Bieger (Jack) and Debra Gau (Harry Striplin). Step children, Mark Owen (Andrea), Julie Owen Northrup (Bob), and Jill Owen Miller. He leaves 20 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews. And three little fur babies that miss him very much.
A memorial service will be held at North Mason High school June 10th. 2023 starting at 1:00 p.m. Friends and family are invited to join in a potluck after the service at the waterfront park. The family has suggested that in lieu of flowers, a donation be made to Central Mason Fire and EMS to provide professional restoration and preservation of District historical records to be placed in a planned fire museum in his name.