Whatcom Cares: Bellingham nonprofit Firefighters for Fun works to save young lives

With his mantra, “If you can be heard, you can be rescued,” former Bellingham firefighter-paramedic John Bartleson has dedicated his retirement years to eliminating deaths from residential fires in Washington state — and other preventable injury and death, especially among young children.

“My whole goal is trying to educate children for an emergency. (But) you do it in a fun way. Then, when an emergency happens, they can deal with it. Fun ... helps keep the fear away,” Bartleson told The Bellingham Herald in 2012. “Really, it’s not an easy subject to teach kids if you think about it,” said Bartleson, who runs the nonprofit Firefighters for Fun with his wife.

To get kids’ attention, Bartleson uses eye-catching displays and souvenir trinkets such as stickers, coloring books and rescue whistles. Firefighters for Fun makes regular appearances at festivals, safety fairs and fundraising events.

Often, he brings a restored 1970s-era Seagrave pumper — part of his collection of antique fire apparatus — giving free fire engine rides. He’s converted an ambulance into a mobile classroom for his Helping Others To Survive program, offering CPR and first aid instruction.

His displays include a toy fire engine for children to ride, and child-sized firefighter gear for them to play dress-up. He has a CPR practice dummy and a display that teaches what a smoke alarm sounds like and what children should do if they hear one.

Bartleson urges parents to conduct fire drills while their children are sleeping, so they’ll know what it’s like to be jolted awake in an emergency. He asks parents to set off the alarm and gauge how their children react.

He goes beyond the “stop drop and roll” advice, discussing how real firefighters and first responders work, giving the programs an air of authenticity.

“I tell them always to treat the alarm as an emergency, you always want to be ready,” Bartleson said. “My goal is to turn all children into thinking like a firefighter for real. Drill at night to train the brain. Train your brain and then you’ll function.”

Such catchy sayings encourage children and others to keep a clear head in an emergency, adding that “attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”

Firefighters for Fun has received several public service awards, including the 2011 American Red Cross Life Time Achievement Heroes Award and recognition from the Washington State Patrol, J.C. Penney and California Casualty insurance.

He’s traveled with his displays and fire apparatus to the U.S. Fire Administration in Maryland, site of the National Fire Academy, stopping across the country to spread his message. He’s working to expand the Firefighters for Fun program to a national audience with his friend Sam Adkins, former Seahawk quarterback, and through contacts at The Discovery Channel he made while serving as a fire-medic aboard one of the “Deadliest Catch” fishing vessels.

“I tell the kids we’re going to get working smoke alarms in every room of the house — every room,” he said. “It’s an honor to do it. It’s not about me. It’s about making a difference, whatever I can do. I’m just starting the ball rolling.”