Two of the Valley Regional Fire Authority’s finest have retired.
Larry Upton, the VRFA assistant fire marshal who spent 37 years in the fire service, and Kevin Olson, a deputy chief who put in 28 years of service, retired June 30.
“I couldn’t have imagined a better career for myself,” said Upton, who served 31 years at the Auburn Fire Department and VRFA and previously six years with the Bonney Lake Fire Department and King County Fire District 10. “The camaraderie, team work and support I was so blessed to experience in my career and all of the wonderfully talented and giving people I have met and worked with – in the fire department, the community and across the country.”
Upton fulfilled duty as a firefighter, public information and education specialist, fire investigation specialist, deputy fire marshal and finally assistant fire marshal.
Upton began his career in 1979, about a mile from where he retired. He worked at the Boeing complex in Auburn, near the VRFA Fire Marshal’s Office, both on C Street Southwest. At Boeing, Upton volunteered for the Bonney Lake Fire Department and was hired as its first paid firefighter in 1983. Two years later, he transferred to King County Fire District 10, where he created an Adopt a School fire safety education program and received the Firefighter of the Year award. The Auburn Fire Department, which became the VRFA in 2007, hired Upton in May 1988.
Upton had a passion for fire prevention and education programs throughout his career. He devoted himself to the cause in memory of four cousins lost in a house fire the year before he was born. He taught school children fire safety while holding a position as a firefighter/public information and education specialist and serving as a board member of the Washington State Public Fire Educators.
He later served five years as the leader of the information and education team, teaching safety messages in creative ways. Through costume and makeup, he transformed into Sparky the Fire Dog, once working with J.P. Patches to reach children. He wrote and performed a safety “rap” song, developed short plays for fire prevention week school assemblies and helped write grade-specific fire safety lesson plans for elementary school classrooms.
After 25 years as a firefighter, Upton decided to focus on fire prevention and joined the Fire Marshal’s Office as a deputy fire marshal in 2008, advancing to assistant fire marshal in 2017. He also served as president of the King County Fire Prevention Officers group from 2015-2017.
Throughout his career Upton earned many awards and recognition, including the Firefighter of the Year award in 1990, a Medal of Merit for the creation of the Youth Firesetting Intervention program in 1995 and a unit citation for his work on an apartment fire in 1994.
Upton has a long list of memorable moments. Topping it was watching his son, a Tukwila firefighter, graduate as the valedictorian of his fire academy and presenting him with his badge in the pinning ceremony.
He promoted and advanced health and wellness through his involvement in the International Association of Fire Fighters Association Peer Fitness and Peer Support programs. He encouraged healthy eating and lifestyles in the station and at home, cancer screening, wellness programs and comprehensive physical exams. He also helped create the first chaplaincy program for firefighters and police in the city of Auburn.
Upton plans to nurture his creative side in retirement as a talented photographer and musician. He looks to maintain and apply 37 years of emergency medical training, possibly in a hospital setting. He is looking forward to opportunities to see more of the world and spend quality time with family.
“Every day Larry came here looking to make things better for everyone around him,” said Fire Chief/Administrator Brent Swearingen. “I’ve never seen anyone with a better work ethic.
“As his history attests, he is always willing to step up and take creative risks and go that extra mile. His quiet, informed and friendly leadership style is a model for his successor. While we will greatly miss him, I know that he has lots of happiness and successes in his future.”
Lifetime of duty
After volunteering for nearly a year with Pierce County Fire Protection District No. 5, Olson was hired as a probationary firefighter with the legacy Auburn Fire Department in April 1991. At the Washington State Fire Training Academy he was named valedictorian of his class and was chosen as a member of the prestigious “Chiefs’ Company” at graduation.
During his seven years as a firefighter, Olson served on several teams and committees including pre-fire planning, communications, public education as well as a rescue specialist performing dive and high-angle rope rescues.
In May 1999, Olson was promoted to captain and worked in operations and training where he completed several strategic objectives to improve training, records management and reporting processes.
In September 2006, he was promoted to battalion chief (BC). He spent the first two years leading the Training and Safety Division. In 2008 he returned to shift where he managed six fire stations and 25 personnel. He made his way back to training in 2015 and was appointed the first VRFA training chief at the South King County Fire Training Consortium, where he managed suppression training and compliance for 800 firefighters and officers.
Olson’s final promotion came in early 2017. Named deputy chief of the Technical Services Division, he managed fire prevention, planning and logistics, training, EMS, emergency management and public information. He completed his career with the VRFA as deputy chief of operations.
Over the span of his career, Olson continuously worked to expand his knowledge by completing several certifications including executive chief officer, blue card certified instructor, ace certified peer fitness instructor, fire officer II and incident safety officer. In 2003, he received an associate of applied science in fire science, and in 2013 he received a bachelor of applied arts and sciences in fire administration from Eastern Oregon University.
Olson has been named Fire Officer of the Year twice during his career in 2004 and 2016 and was awarded meritorious unit citations in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998.
“I’ve never known anyone who displayed more integrity, insight and enthusiasm for the fire service and our community,” Swearingen said. “Kevin embodies everything great about the VRFA. I’ll profoundly miss his leadership and advice.”
Olson added, “As I reflect back, the one thing I did right was take advantage of opportunities, and for those opportunities I am most grateful. I am forever in debt to the city of Auburn and the VRFA for allowing me to serve in this capacity.”
Throughout his career, Olson has given back to the community by coaching Auburn Youth Soccer and serving on the Blue Ribbon Committee for Auburn.
“Kevin’s work ethic and energy was off the charts. Whatever he set out to accomplish, he did it 100 percent,” said Deputy Chief Larberg. “Kevin’s high standards provided an example for all personnel to follow. You always wanted to be on Kevin’s team because you knew his team would be competitive and successful.”
Olson says he will miss working with others at the VRFA.
“I have had some amazing opportunities to work with some of the best people in the region and have learned so much from them,” he said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the work they do, which makes this difficult to walk away from.”
Olson is building a home on Hood Canal, with his wife, Carla. He is looking forward to slowing down a bit and enjoying time with family and friends.