by Greg Thomas
The King County International Airport, located in South Seattle, Washington, has a very unique service team. Eighteen deputies from the King County Sheriff’s Office operate the contract with the airport. They are not only police officers, but also full-fledged firefighters and emergency medical technicians. We jokingly refer to ourselves as “fire-cops” or the original “Guns and Hoses.”
Each deputy is a fully commissioned police officer and must maintain all of the same credentials, certifications and training as a non-airport police officer. They are required to go to the State Police Academy, and most deputies have five to eight years on the street before transferring into the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) unit at the airport. Once in the unit, they must become ARFF-certified through special training and attend the State Fire Academy for five months. They then must meet the unit standards for certification. While in the Fire Academy, they will be certified in Fire Fighter 1 and 2, hazardous material (operations) and EMS. The FAA has several requirements that ARFF units must meet. This is very challenging training.
As you can see from our pictures, we are a very fluid operation. Using our specialized equipment, we can go from a fully uniformed and armed police officer (including heavy vests, ballistic helmets and rifles) into bunker gear ready to fight fire and administer aid in a matter of seconds. We have arrested people in bunker gear, but have not had to fight fires in police gear (that would just not work out very well). Luckily, we are able to do this at any time, because we take our fire gear on patrol with us in our Ford F-150 cruisers. We have gun safes in our patrol trucks and our fire trucks to keep them secured while we take care of fire business.
We are all trained to respond to active shooters. We can be deployed anywhere on the field in a matter of minutes. We also practice active-shooter deployments as a team. Working closely together makes for a better tactical response. We are highly skilled at de-escalation skills, defensive tactics and security awareness.
Geographically, our area is a little unusual — to our north and east is the city of Seattle. Cutting our runway almost directly in half is the boundary line between Seattle and the city of Tukwila. Tukwila owns the southern and western half of the area. Through creative negotiations, all of the area within the fence and from the sidewalks inward at the airport is considered unincorporated King County! We are responsible for all police reports and activities, and Seattle and Tukwila police and fire are our mutual aid partners.
Ours is the airport of choice for VIPs coming to the Seattle area. We have hosted presidents from many countries, as well as sitting and retired U.S. presidents, senators, representatives and, during an election year, anyone who is running for those offices! We work closely with the Secret Service, FBI, Customs, the City of Seattle and the Washington State Patrol. Dignity security and protection is a very complicated and demanding function. All of this adds to our interesting job description.
The King County International Airport is also known as “Boeing Field.” Boeing has been a presence here since the early 1900s and has its world headquarters here. Boeing helped to win World War II by building the B-17 and B-29 bombers here. Today the company does all of the finishing work on 737s at the field. All 737s leave Boeing Field to be delivered to their buyers all over the world.
Because Boeing also makes the F-18, the same plane the Navy’s Blue Angels air acrobatic team uses, we host the flying team during our Seafair celebration. The world-famous Museum of Flight also borders the airport. This is a fun place to work!
Our fourth mission, besides police, fire and EMS, is community service. The airport and Sheriff’s Office have a very strong Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) program. The airport supports the Discovery University, where we host school-aged children from every grade and, working within the ESJ framework, teach them about opportunities at the airport for careers and employment. These sessions are very enjoyable and positive for everyone. Being a cross-profession, we are able to expose them to both the fire and police sides. For some, it is their first positive interaction with the police.
We are fortunate to be in a place and time where we can mix the cross-professions of police officer and firefighter to bring down barriers and promote the conversations and actions that reveal to our customers and communities that we support equity and social justice, while performing lifesaving duties to the aviation community.
Greg Thomas is in his 39th year with the King County Sheriff’s Office and has been a captain for 20 years. Among other things, he has supervised the evidence, patrol operations, drug enforcement, helicopter, gun range and records units, and commanded the advanced training, civil process, major crimes, data, tribal contract, canine, and search and rescue units. He is the fire chief (via contract) for the King County International Airport, where he has been for the past three years.