OTTAWA LAKE - For five decades, Bob Dickerson has been awakened in the middle of the night, called away from the dinner table at inopportune times, and left guests behind to answer his neighbors' calls for help.
And in all that time, about the only things that haven't changed for the 70-year-old Ottawa Lake fire chief and his department are the water and the hoses.
Mr. Dickerson, who has been chief of the 25-person department for the last 30 years, was honored earlier this month by the men and women with whom he serves as he marks 50 years with the Ottawa Lake Fire Department.
"Things have changed a lot. Back when I joined [in January, 1956], we had rubber coats. Now, with the equipment we wear, you can get into heat that's so excessive that you don't even realize it," explained Mr. Dickerson, who has also served for the last 20 years as Whiteford Township treasurer.
Unlike his first few decades of service, much of a firefighter's role today is not so much one running with hose in hand as it is with a first-aid kit.
"We don't have too many fires anymore. Most of our work now is rescue work," Mr. Dickerson said.
There's also a big difference in that some of those 'good old boys' on the back of the fire truck are now women.
"We've got two female [firefighters] on our department, and they're both [emergency medical technicians]. I'm awfully proud of that," the longtime chief said. "It's much harder to be a firefighter now than it was when I started. There's all the darn schooling you have to have; they have to be away from home all the time."
For someone with a history as long as Mr. Dickerson's, his memory of big fires is fleeting, he admits. The two that stick out most in his mind were a huge tire fire that burned for days along U.S. 223 and a fire in downtown Ottawa Lake that destroyed the old train depot in 1956, during his first year as a firefighter.
"That was a hot fire. A steam engine went through and dumped its ashes, and it started the depot on fire," Mr. Dickerson recalled.
Founded in 1929, the Ottawa Lake Volunteer Fire Department protected the relatively bustling hub of Whiteford Township and the surrounding community from a station in the heart of a central business district. But like his old rubber fire coat, that, too, has changed around Mr. Dickerson, who is only the fourth chief in the history of the department.
"Fifty years ago, the town was Ottawa Lake. Now, there's nothing there," the longtime fire chief lamented. "Where we put our addition on the fire station used to be a barber shop and a bar. Now, you can't even buy a sandwich in town. You gotta run up to Sylvania or up to Exit 5 if somebody wants something to eat."
Even though the milestone of a golden anniversary as a firefighter might give most 70-year-old men a reason to hang up their fire helmet, Mr. Dickerson said he's not yet ready to slow down, mostly because the men and women working for him are so good that his job is relatively simple.
"I may step down someday as chief, but I won't retire from the fire department as long as they'll let me stay," he said of his fellow firefighters. "They're the ones who make my job easy; they do all my work for me."
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