ALTON — When a firefighter retires from duty, the days of battling fires in his community may be over, but the fire and passion inside continues to burn.
So what do retired firefighters do? Often, they remain involved in their brotherhood by joining the Alton Retired Firefighters Association, a branch of the Illinois State Retired Firefighters Association.
The Alton group consists of about 35 members and has been around for 10 years. May 26 marked its second meeting in 2015 (it also meets in January and September each year).
“Our agenda usually consists of discussion of what the Illinois State Retired Firefighters Association is doing, bringing the members up to speed on the pension system, which has been under attack lately, and making sure that we are supporting and helping our current firefighters with anything they need,” said Noel “Butch” Reister, a 28-year veteran and retired Alton firefighter.
Tuesday’s meeting was a little different. The retired firefighters invited active members of the fire department to join them for an evening of fellowship and a chance to swap stories.
“For years the Alton retired firefighters did not have an association of their own,” Alton Fire Chief Bernie Sebold said. “The only time active firefighters would see the retired was a once-a-year union dinner, until we formed our own retired association about 10 years ago.
“I personally have always enjoyed meeting with the retired guys. Some of these retired guys were allowed to ride the board on the back of the truck as they raced to the fires. Some of these men didn’t even have breathing apparatus when they were active firefighters.”
This year, 94-year-old Roy Fenwick (the “Senior Man”) made the trip back from Bull Shoals Lake to visit with his uniform brothers and meet the current firefighters. As is tradition, photos were taken with Fenwick, the oldest of the group, as well as photos with the evening’s youngest “newbie.”
“We enjoyed the people we worked with; they were like our family and we shared a lot,” Reister said.
During Reister’s service in the ’80s, the Alton Fire Department had approximately 66 members. There now are about 35 active in the department. While on the surface that may seem alarming, Reister said there are reasons for the decrease.
“Budget cuts as well as better training, better equipment and the actual shrinking of the city population account for the drastic change in numbers,” he said. “In addition, there used to be more fires. Now, there is better fire prevention training and information and household items are much safer, which also decreases the number of fires.
“On the flip side, in the ’80s the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) was just getting started. Now there are probably more calls that come in for EMS than for fires, and there are many more EMTs to help fill that role.
“The job has changed so much from the firefighting we knew. “
Regardless of the number, some things remain unchanged. The long hours (24-hour shifts), the tight-knit brotherhood, and the danger firefighters face every day are as palpable as ever.
“We as the Alton Retired Firefighters Association are very proud of our boys,” Reister said. “That’s what we want them to know.”
Sebold summed up the experience of being a firefighter, and decades later, some things never change.
“There is a saying ... you can take the firefighter out of the firehouse but you can never take the firehouse out of the firefighter,” he said. “We cook together, train together … our lives depend on each other. It is camaraderie like no other; one that builds relationships that we have for the rest of our lives.
“Much like veterans of military, they have stories of where we have been. It is a valuable message to tell current guys, especially the younger ones. The retired firefighters have wonderful stories and experiences that are fantastic.”