29 Down: KPFD Firefighter-Paramedic Mike Riegle on Retirement and Redemption

Three decades on the line taught this firefighter about service, community and himself.

Mike Reigle’s last day in the KP Fire Department
Mike Reigle’s last day in the KP Fire Department Anne Nesbit, KPFD

After 31 years starting as a volunteer EMT, then a 29-year career firefighter-paramedic, a lieutenant, battalion chief, and then back to the line as a firefighter, Mike Riegle, 57, finished his last 48-hour shift serving the Key Peninsula on Memorial Day.

“Good way to go out,” Riegle said. “The last two calls of the career were a house fire and a vehicle driven into a structure. Minor injuries, but he did some pretty good damage to his house. We had to cut a section of the wall out so we could open his passenger side door.”

Riegle found his way to the KP after serving as an Army combat medic and working at Fort Lewis. In 1988 he and his girlfriend bought a house near Wauna and got married.

“We were cleaning up the back of the property one day and doing some burning in a burn barrel and the next thing I know I’ve got firefighters at the front door,” Riegle said. “So we put it out and got to talking. Come to find out they were volunteers and I said I’m an EMT out at Madigan, how would I join out here? That’s how I got started, 1990, under Chief Kano.”

Riegle was hired and became a paramedic in 1991.

“There were only three active firefighters per shift in those days, so nine paid guys plus the chiefs, 15 total, if that,” he said.

“Back then we would average three calls in a 24 hour period, usually all at once. I don’t know how many times I told my wife they needed me to work. I put the job ahead of her, which was probably why we got divorced.” Riegle remarried, divorced and married again over the years, becoming stepfather to seven children. He is expecting his 17th grandchild next fall.

Retiring firefighters get driven to work in a fire truck on their last day. “It’s a ritual we have, and I was remembering all the calls at all the places along the way,” Riegle said. “You have some good calls that you remember, but most of it is bad stuff that didn’t go well.”

There was the guy making illegal fireworks that blew up his trailer, killing himself and a young friend Riegle knew.

There was the house fire that burned almost to the foundation before they stopped it and found a deceased family member inside.

There was the baby Riegle tried to resuscitate early one morning, the child of a fellow firefighter.

There were also those six babies he delivered.

“I’ve had some emotional ups and downs and I’ve had some ups and downs career-wise,” he said.

Riegle was on track to become the medical services officer for KPFD until his career hit a roadblock.

“I came up through the ranks in the organization,” he said. “I became a battalion chief. But then we had an incident that happened several years ago where a group of us were at a conference and one of our volunteers, who was a minor, came into one of the hotel night clubs and proceeded to drink with us. He got too intoxicated and caused some damage.”

During a subsequent investigation, Riegle said he knew the volunteer was 20.

“When I served in the military, we were allowed to drink at 18, and here I am I’ve got a volunteer who goes into house fires with me, working side by side with me doing the same job I’m doing. I’m not going to stop him being with us. But it was a bad decision.”

Riegle was demoted from battalion chief to firefighter-paramedic. A second officer involved was fired.

“When I came back to the shift and started working for guys who used to work under me, I would tell each of them ‘This doesn’t have to be awkward, you’re my boss, I expect you to be my boss.’ In a way it was a relief because I was back doing what I loved doing,” he said.

“On the emotional side, the bad calls tend to stay with you if you don’t address them.”

One point got pretty deep, he said.

“This was back in the late ’90s. We had a call in the Wauna curves where a motorcyclist went down. I intubate the patient right away because he’s not breathing. The volunteer is bagging him, ventilating him, the other two paramedics are trying to get an IV in each arm and we’re doing CPR on this guy and the next thing you know we’ve got a pulse back. We call for an airlift to get him to Seattle because he’s a level 1 trauma.

“When we loaded him onto the chopper he had a pulse. After they took off, the guy ended up dying. That was a tipping point for me, when I started having suicidal thoughts. It seemed like everyone I touched ended up dying.

“I went to see a psychiatrist we work with who specializes in PTSD in firefighters and law enforcement. I felt bad for having to go to the chief with this, but for years the fire service has had a high suicide rate of retired and active-duty firefighters, law enforcement officers, taking their own lives because of the stuff they’re seeing out on the streets, and we’re starting to recognize that.

“The days back when I was hired, you didn’t talk about this stuff, you turned it off. But years later guys end up taking their own lives. Everybody at some point is going to have a call that’s going to have a lasting effect if they don’t address it. I hope to serve this organization in my retirement as a volunteer in that respect.”

In the meantime Riegle plans to go fishing for a while but has no plans to leave the area.

“I just want the Key Peninsula to know it’s been a great place to serve and I was honored to do it,” he said.

“I also got to deliver those six babies.”