PENDLETON — With 10:30 a.m. approaching fast, it’s almost time for Brian Bowe’s transformation, a wardrobe change that turns the 19-year old from life saver to game player.
On a Thursday in late March, Bowe will put his 24-hour shift as a resident reserve firefighter on hold to practice with his other team — the Blue Mountain Community College baseball Timberwolves.
The moments leading up to the changeover are accompanied by brief anxiety as Bowe feels each second tick away toward practice time, hoping the emergency calls hold off long enough for him to break away.
Like when the Blue Mountain sophomore is filling downtime at the station with homework or online tests for his school courses. Starting a timed exam is almost a guarantee that the firefighters on shift will soon head out on a 911 call.
Most days there isn’t time to do those tests anywhere else. Busy fails comically short of describing Bowe’s daily life in Pendleton. A full class load at the college butts heads with working two to three shifts at the station per week — enough to exhaust most students.
Yet he adds baseball to the mix, another full-time job manning third base. When those lives overlap — which tends to be most days — his baseball and firefighting superiors usually give him the leeway to leave when needed.
“Brian’s time is very tight,” Pendleton Fire Department Capt. Matt Benedict said. “I wouldn’t call it a conflict, it's just something you’ve got to get used to.
“He juggles, and that’s tough to do. He can be dead tired in the morning sometimes but he’s still coming up here. He’s going to be successful because of that drive.”
Bowe rarely gets any free moments to himself swapping so many hats, but that isn’t necessarily bad.
“Going between one or the other is kind of like a break,” Bowe said. “If I’m having a bad day at either place, I can go and switch worlds for a bit. Think of it as an opportunity to de-stress, to switch gears.”
Bowe grew up just across the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash., and was surrounded by civil servants all during childhood. His father was a police officer and the family’s neighbor was the fire department chief. After a fire station job shadow there, Bowe was set on a similar career path.
He craved adrenaline-driven work, the type that he would never find at a desk. The Southridge High student was also drawn to the romantic side of firefighting.
“One of the real reasons is everybody wants to be the hero, to give somebody another shot,” he said. “Hopefully, you can look back and say, ‘Yeah, maybe that person wouldn’t have made it without me.’
Out of high school, he signed to play baseball with Blue Mountain, a school close enough to home to allow him to visit family in the Tri-Cities on the rare occasion when he gets an open afternoon or weekend. Bowe attended the Hermiston Fire and Emergency Services for entry level fire training and enrolled in the “sleeper residence program” in Pendleton, where he’s currently in his second year.
A resident goes on all the same calls that the professionals attend, from routine smoke-outs from a citizen burning toast to major traumas like car wrecks.
“I know it sounds really bad, but our most interesting days our people’s worst days of thier lives,” Bowe said. “But those are the days that you really learn.”
The program acts as a sort of internship for aspiring paramedics, Bowe’s ultimate career aspiration. He and fellow resident, 22-year old Alex Baty, sometimes don’t have the training for certain calls, but the extra pair of hands lend their keep in aiding preparation.
Having two residents in Pendleton is a great resource not only for the department, but for each other, Baty said. Pendleton did not sponsor any residents for the five years before bringing on Bowe and Baty.
Because of Bowe’s hectic schedule, Baty rarely runs into him, even in the fire department-owned house the two share next to the station. So when the two do cross paths, they try and take advantage of the time.
“We can both kind of talk about the same experiences we’re going through and coming back after calls,” said Baty, who works a different shift than Bowe. “I think it helps us figure out the best way to handle them, the best way to train.”
The fire department houses the two next door so they can have easy access to the station when not on shift in case of major emergencies.
The baseball player’s high school days flowed from one sports season to the next but Bowe said he knew baseball would win out in the long run. He felt baseball would carry him to college and it may even carry him to a four-year school when his sophomore season is finished this May. The infielder leads the Timberwolves in RBIs (eight) while ranking second on the team in batting average (.254).
He comes to practice ready to work — even if the fire house is still in his mind — and even when slowed by injury, such as a tweaked hamstring that hampered him midway through this season.
“Brian is very passionate. He’s passionate about baseball and he’s passionate about his career,” BMCC baseball coach Brett Bryan said. “He gets out here and works and works and does whatever we ask of him. If he can do anymore, he tries.”
But wherever baseball takes him next — Central Washington University recruited Bowe out of high school and has expressed further interest recently — paramedic school and a fire science degree are the top goals on Bowe’s list. The closest school that offers the program needed to land a certified paramedic job, Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash., is just minutes from Bowe’s boyhood home.
But if there’s one thing that firefighting has branded in Bowe’s brain it’s this: always be ready for something new.
“No matter what you do in life, it seems things happen when you don’t expect them,” Bowe said “Like waiting for a call. Just like baseball, when you don’t expect it, somebody will hit it to you.”