In the 36 years, Neil Pedersen has been a firefighter, he has seen his fire department grow from one station to five, he has worked one of the largest fires in Auburn history and he has beaten back cancer.
In all that time, he has worked many sleepless nights and has responded to heart-wrenching incidents. Yet, when asked about his career, he smiles and offers this simple response.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was awesome.”
Pedersen began working for the legacy Auburn Fire Department on Oct. 1, 1984, when eight firefighters worked at one fire station in the 700 block of Auburn Way South.
It was, Pedersen recalled, a random invitation from a friend to tour a Seattle fire station that determined his career path.
“The first time I walked into a fire station, I was 18 years old. Something just felt right. I knew then I was meant to be a firefighter,” Pedersen recalled.
Less than one year after he was hired, Pedersen earned a Medal of Merit for bravery and ingenuity during a water rescue incident on the Green River.
Shortly after that, the department selected him to serve on the first specialty water rescue team. This team evolved over the years to include hazardous materials response, high angle and confined space rescue. Today it is known as the VRFA Technical Rescue Team.
Pedersen served on the team for 29 years.
“Neil is one of the most resourceful and innovative firefighters to have worked at the Auburn Fire Department and VRFA,” said Deputy Chief Dave Larberg. “From his early days in special operations, Neil was engaged in every aspect of technical rescue. His energy, passion and skills were evident at emergency incidents. Whenever there was a critical call — EMS, fire, or rescue — it was always reassuring when Neil arrived at the scene.”
Looking back at the many fires he has helped extinguish over the years, one in particular stands out: the April 11, 1989, Leatherback Industries fire. The five-alarm fire in a manufacturing complex was one of the largest in Auburn’s history.
Along with fires, aid calls kept Pedersen from sleep many nights. He relishes the calls where he felt he had genuinely helped someone, but said he won’t miss getting up several times a night.
“I decided it was all about perspective. I came to work thinking I would be running emergency calls all night and wouldn’t count on sleeping. If that didn’t happen, it was a positive,” said Pedersen.
In 1999, Pedersen was diagnosed with cancer, endured two surgeries, and missed six months of work. Thanks in part to him and to one of his doctors, the type of cancer he had is now listed as a presumptive disease for firefighters, allowing for approval of medical coverage and treatment.
He will always remember the support of his co-workers. Twenty-five firefighters lined up to have their heads shaved by Pedersen to show their solidarity.
Pedersen received many accolades and awards during his career, including Firefighter of the Year for 2016. Whereas most of his awards related to outstanding performance on emergency incidents, this award recognized Pedersen’s vast mechanical skills while working on an administrative shift assignment.
He was a valuable resource, converting an ambulance into a specialized TRT apparatus for the water rescue team, self-engineering brackets and shelving to accommodate tools/equipment for a new fire engine, and providing equipment repairs and general maintenance services for the VRFA.
“In 2016, Neil was instrumental in outfitting and equipping a new fire engine that had returned from the factory. His concentrated effort and creativity produced a standard equipment design that we use today. Neil was also helpful to Support Services providing various handyman services for facilities, apparatus, and equipment repairs. Neil could fix anything,” said Larberg.
“Neil is one of those rare people that combines an intense curiosity with a can-do attitude,” said VRFA Fire Chief Brent Swearingen. “What this adds up to is a firefighter who isn’t afraid to try new things, and is always looking for a better way – whether it is creating an improved technique to keep tools clean, completely re-plumbing the waterways on a fire engine, or fixing the brakes on an 80-year-old antique parade rig, Neil threw himself into each project with all he had. No matter the task, Neil is never afraid to get dirty. We will miss that enthusiastic attitude, but wish Neil the many full nights’ sleep that he so richly deserves.”
Pedersen said he will miss the people he worked with more than any other aspect of the job but he is ready for retirement.
“I plan to tinker and travel. There is a lot of world to see,” Pedersen said.