The last day before retirement for engineer driver John Fontana began like any other day in his previous 35½ years with South King Fire and Rescue.
Fontana, who has been with the Marine District Fire Team since its inception, boarded the new fireboat at the Des Moines Marina, donned a life jacket and smiled behind the helm.
Marine 367, “Zenith,” is the reason for the extra six months added to Fontana’s career. Although he planned to retire in November 2021, he couldn’t leave until he saw the new and improved fireboat.
“That was my goal, I was going [retire] last year, but that’s when the department got the funding… I extended it to that,” he said.
Fontana’s career began in January 1988 with what was previously King County Fire District #26 in Des Moines. Then the fire district merged with the Federal Way Fire Department to create South King Fire and Rescue.
He was one of the first firefighters to operate the first fireboat, along with a handful of others from the Des Moines district. As plans and designs for the new vessel took shape, Fontana acted as a consultant to Fire Chief Dave Mataftin to bounce ideas or suggestions, given his decades with the watercraft.
“Always a positive force in the department, John will be missed by many, including me,” Mataftin said, adding that Fontana is the definition of what it means to be a firefighter. “I have the deepest respect for him as a person, and getting to know his family is special to me as well. John’s retirement is well deserved. His gain is the loss of South King.
This spring, Fontana is one of the first crew members to drive the new boat, which has also given him a few extra months with his family of firefighters, he said.
“I was lucky to have a good crew throughout my career,” he said. “That’s the part I’ll miss. It’s camaraderie and firehouse life and sitting around the table, solving all the problems in the world.
Leaving the department with a respected legacy and an unofficial title of fire station chief, Fontana said now was the right time for him to leave.
Traveling up Puget Sound on a May afternoon in the fireboat, Fontana passes the shores where he spent years helping people on those same roads, in those homes, and in those neighborhoods.
“It’s pretty cool,” Fontana said of driving the new ship. “It’s a good feeling.”