BELLINGHAM - It's not going to be easy the next time Kahni Tuson sees Big Red.
After 28 years, Bellingham Fire Department's first female firefighter had her last day on Thursday, March 28, and she's going to miss just about everything about the job, including her truck, which she nicknamed Big Red.
"My heart will do a flip-flop every time I see a fire engine or hear the sirens," said Tuson, 56. "I'll be wondering what they're going out on. It'll be hard."
She remembers people doing a double take when they'd see her driving: They couldn't believe a woman was behind the wheel of a fire truck. She had to prove herself to every crew she worked with - and she had to prove to firefighters' wives that she wasn't a threat sharing a dorm with their husbands. But once people got to know her and work with her, her energy, enthusiasm and hard work sold them.
"There was always that apprehension that things were going to be totally different, but it wasn't different," said Jim White, a retired captain for the Bellingham Fire Department who worked with Tuson when she started. "She did the job just like any other firefighter. She fit in right off the bat."
The department did have to make some changes. There was no maternity leave for firefighters when she started. She had two kids during her career (one son is testing to be a firefighter). And as new stations were built, the traditional dorm area was replaced by separate sleeping quarters and bathrooms.
When it came to patients, she took care of them with empathy and reassurance, Capt. Tony McGuinn said. Patients have even stopped by Station 4 on Yew Street, the last station of her career, to visit her; one brought her a pie on Thursday. McGuinn, and just about anybody who's ever met Tuson, described her as energetic and passionate.
"She's a one of a kind person," he said. "You know Kahni is in the building, you know she's in the room. She's not quiet. She's always doing a job, always making sure things are getting done."
Firefighter Beth Carroll, 33, has been working with Tuson since January and said she's sad to lose someone who made every shift dynamic and fun.
"She has, for me, been the epitome of what I hope to be able to emulate," Carroll said. "Every single day she brings this passion and energy, and it's contagious. You can't have a bad day around her. I hope I can follow in her footsteps in that regard."
Though Tuson was the department's first female firefighter, Carroll said she set the foundation for many more. After Tuson leaves, the department will have five, and Tuson hopes that's just the beginning.
"I know for a fact I wouldn't be here without someone like Kahni opening the door," Carroll said. "She set the bar really high."
Tuson said she feels like "the luckiest gal in the world" to have a job that didn't feel like a job, one that surprised her every day and gave her a second family of brothers and sisters that she'll keep in contact with for the rest of her life.
"It's bittersweet. I'm really excited for my next adventure, yet I'm going to miss everything," she said. "The people I work with, the camaraderie, the kinship, the team spirit, I will miss that."