Steve Emrich came to firefighting later than most, but now a Captain with the Chehalis Fire Department, when he did find his way into the fire service, he brought with him the drive, determination, and passion for community that has been the hallmarks of his life.
A licensed pilot since 17 years old, Emrich is also an avid hunter and fisher and active with organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Boy Scouts of America, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Coastal Conservation Association, Experimental Aircraft Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and his family farm, just to name a few.
Steve Emrich is not one for letting time slip by, making him a good match for the life of a first responder. The pace and the situations emergency response workers often find themselves facing, mean the work is not for everyone. “It’s a great job, but you never know what you’re going to go to from one minute to the next, so if you can’t handle a lot of stress, and you can’t handle some gory scenes… if it doesn’t turn out well, how are you going to handle it?” he says.
But this constant question of what new, unknown scenario will present itself next is precisely what Emrich likes about the job. “You don’t know whether you’re going to be going on a kid that fell off a swing, or whether you’re going to have some teenager that tried to slip into a kiddie swing at the park, whether you’re going to have some massive heart attack, or some big grinder on I-5, or an airplane that goes into a foundation of a house. I’ve had all those calls,” he says. “I don’t know if I could ever go back to a 7 to 4 or 8 to 5 job.”
He certainly has plenty of experience in a more typical day job to compare. Having grown up on a 30-acre farm in Chehalis, where he and his wife Kendra still live after raising their four children, Emrich became deeply familiar with the produce industry. He spent 22 years as a produce manager at various grocery stores around Lewis County before embarking on his journey with the fire service.
“As I was growing up as a kid on the farm, there was a local place over here on Main Street that was West Coast Fruit and Produce,” he says. “We sold the majority of our produce to that warehouse and also to what was then Fuller’s Market Baskets.”
Becoming a firefighter was not even on his radar until he had an experience in the early 1990s waiting for a response while his father had a medical emergency. “My mother called the fire department and medical help with 911 and said we need help immediately,” he says. “It took her three calls on 911 for a total of 22 minutes to get a response.” The reason? The department was understaffed and in need of reserve firefighters, so there were no ambulances available and no reserves that could come to help in the meantime. One of the then-Captains told Emrich as much after his father was transported, and Emrich decided that he would help fill that need.
Emrich became a reserve with the Chehalis Fire Department, as well as an EMT, and spent eight years training, responding to callbacks on his evenings and weekends on top of his job as a produce manager, and helping with other reserve programs, such as Shop with a Firefighter, which provides local, underprivileged children with clothing and school supplies.
Then, in 2000, Emrich was offered a job as a career firefighter and has been full-time with the department ever since. “Basically, it was my dad being very ill and not having a response,” he says. “If there had been a really quick response, I probably never would have joined the fire department.”
Now, with his 30 years of cumulative experience between his time as a reserve and a career firefighter and three fire-related degrees from Centralia College and South Puget Sound Community College, it is clear that the Chehalis Fire Department is fortunate that Emrich responded to his community’s need by jumping in to help, even though it meant starting over in a new career field with a different set of skills he would need to learn.
But Steve Emrich is a helper with a mindset for public service. “I would rather share what I have, what my wife and I have, with others to help their lives to be better and fun, more than my own,” he says.