For the good of Ballard
By Peggy Sturdivant
I am not the first person to note the amazing parallels between Western Fire & Safety’s new facility on NW Market Street and the Nordic Museum directly across the street. “A Dream Realized,” blazed Westside Seattle’s front page when the world-class museum opened in May 2018. The same is now true on the other side of Market, as though offering proof outside of exhibit walls of what it can mean for an immigrant to fulfill their American dream.
Mirza Agha, Western Fire & Safety owner, emigrated from Pakistan as a newlywed. He has been an American for 42 years. The new location, just blocks from their 29-year home on NW Market Street, has been years in the planning. They had their open house on November 8, 2018.
“Coming in here with my crew, from the old location, it’s very hard for me to describe the exhilaration, the excitement, the accomplishment a person could feel, especially one who started point zero,” Agha told me.
Until I met Agha I had no idea of what’s entailed in the fire safety business. Just one month after surviving a move he called dramatic, Agha walked me through aisles of retail products. He showed me the hoses and nozzles (a $700 one just below a $13) within different categories: detectors, retardants, signs, cabinets, respirators, escape ladders, fire blankets, and “every fire extinguisher you can ever dream of.”
The average household may have purchased or had recharged their fire extinguishers at Western Fire & Safety without realizing their real specialty is in marine. With local and national contracts they are go-to for Coast Guard certified equipment. Agha worked to have a discontinued copper model recertified and manufactured and they now have an exclusive on the approved foam extinguisher. “It’s kind of a big deal.” They have sold thousands in the last 12 years.
I asked Agha how long he’d wanted to have a purpose-built location. “Many years, since I was a baby,” he joked. His father was an fire safety importer in Pakistan and he’d had some experience in servicing equipment before deciding to be closer to in-laws already in America, Seattle specifically.
We toured beyond the retail section to the shop areas, where an $80,000 compressor can fill a breathing apparatus. To an on-site warehouse (for the first time since 1989) with a forklift that can reach for palates, such as one labeled wooden axes. In the shop Agha showed me the 200-lb (empty that is) extinguishers that may be in the engine room on a boat. “There are ships that may have 400 of these onboard,” he said.
“Built to highest possible standards,” Agha said repeatedly of features in the new facility, which was six years in the planning and building stage, “Everything…equipment, evacuation, earthquake preparedness, roof garden, solar panels, energy efficient lighting. I wanted to do it right.” I was reminded of touring behind the scenes with executive director Eric Nelson at Nordic across the street. The planning, the choices, and for both the museum and Western Fire & Safety, the light years leap from ‘making do’ to designing state-of-the-art.
Agha and Nelson both have view offices looking to the south, although Nelson gets the Ship Canal and Agha’s view includes Market Street and the liquor store to the west. Agha’s new neon sign is almost a companion to the glow of the Nordic’s new look, but with a glowing base and flames stretching upward. The sign was designed, “by a guy named Greg” who had done signage for the Nordic and came over to introduce himself. Greg said he wanted to do something complementary, and a bit “Las Vegas.”
Agha acquired the lot itself five years ago. “I wanted to stay on Market Street where my customers can find me,” Agha said. A mural just above the entrance celebrates the old location and all things local, marine, and safety. He will be preparing the vacant 3000 s.f. building for sale. In the meantime he now arrives to work with his two daughters (a son went into Marine Biology) in the 17,000 s.f. space. “I cannot start to describe my feelings when I come here every morning.”
“It might be called the American Dream,” he said, at his corner desk. “I already thought I’d done very well compared to the average immigrant. We live well and we’re very, very grateful.” Soon after arriving in Seattle he got a job in fire equipment sales and really hustled…“I was broke and we had the babies.”
Eight years later he was able start his own business with a warehouse and then the Market Street retail location. Now 29 years later, across from the ‘dream realized’ by the Scandinavian volunteers, Mirza Agha has built his own world-class business. He’s pleased when people comment that his new building is a worthy complement to the new Nordic. “I wanted it to be head turner,” he admitted. “I think I’ve done something good for Ballard.”
I totally agree.