On July 18, 2017, Ryan LaFave answered his doorbell and found two distressed younger neighbors standing outside.
The children told him that their Kelso house was on fire and two of their siblings were at home.
Ryan, who has Down syndrome, kept his cool.
Ryan is the son of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Chief Dave LaFave. The 22-year-old graduated from Cowlitz 2’s fire science program as a high schooler, and he still volunteers at the Kelso station.
Using his training, he quickly went over to his neighbor’s house and found two agitated children outside.
The children — aged 13, 10, 9 and 6 — also have special needs, including ADHD.
Ryan made sure the children did not try to re-enter the home and helped call 911. Then he waited until a Cowlitz 2 fire squad arrived and extinguished the blaze. All four of the children escaped without injury.
Ryan will be recognized for his actions at 11 a.m. Wednesday with a challenge coin presented by Washington Fire Marshall Charles LeBlanc. It will be the first challenge coin ever awarded by the state fire marshall’s office. Ryan will also receive a challenge coin from Washington State Patrol chief John Batiste.
Challenge coins — which date back to World War I — are generally awarded to individuals whose actions warrant special recognition, Dave LaFave said in an interview Tuesday. LaFave, a 35-year veteran of Cowlitz 2, has dozens of his own challenge coins displayed in his office, including a coin awarded by a four-star Army general.
Ryan already received a challenge coin from Cowlitz 2 last September at a fire commissioners’ meeting.
“They felt that what he did was above and beyond in some fashion,” LaFave said.
Lieutenant Jason Sanders, the acting duty chief that day, said the children could have been injured if Ryan had not responded effectively.
“Had he not been present, the situation certainly could have been different,” he said Tuesday.
Sanders said firefighters always teach people to stay outside of a burning home after exiting.
“Part of the message is once you’re out of the house, you stay out of the house,” he said.
But some children attempt to re-enter burning homes to retrieve pets or other special items, he said.
“Having Ryan there probably reiterated that point to not go back in; otherwise they may have gone back in for that special item,” Sanders said.
LaFave said it can be hard for members of the public to recall emergency training during crises.
“It’s always hard when it’s your own house,” he said. “We see a lot of chaotic scenes, so to remain calm and be a calming force is something we ask of everyone involved with a situation like that.”
LaFave also credited the instructors with the fire science program for the event’s successful outcome.
“If Ryan hadn’t been exposed to the fire science program, and frankly if the people involved hadn’t had the patience to work with Ryan, then I don’t think he would have been able to function at the same level that he did.”
LaFave said he’s seen instructor Kirk Meller demonstrate the same level of patience with students who have no relation to the fire department.
Firefighter Bryan Ditterick said the program has produced scores of firefighters, police officers and members of the armed services since it was first conceived in 1995.
“They take those values with them through the rest of their life, and this is an example that Ryan has done to help others and really instill those values within the community,” he said.