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Published: Wednesday, 1/25/2006

Oregon: Firefighter of 40 years to bow out

BY ERIKA RAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Bill Flanagan openly admits that when he was a teenager, he didn't know much about firefighters other than that they rode on fire trucks to put out fires.

Nonetheless, two friends convinced him to apply at the Oregon Fire Department shortly after he married his wife, JoAnn, in November, 1965.

After waiting four months to turn 21 - the legal age for him to become a firefighter - he was hired as a recruit on April 26, 1966.

Almost 40 years later, Mr. Flanagan, 60, leans back in the chair occupying his cream-colored office in the city's fire administration building and looks at the nails stuck in the nearly empty walls amid firefighter memorabilia scattered around the room.

"I never thought I'd stay 40 years and work from a volunteer up the ranks," he said, dressed in his crisp, assistant fire chief uniform - one he'll wear until Wednesday, when he'll hang up his helmet for good and retire. "I guess it's something that gets into your blood, giving you a feeling you were accomplishing something."

An Oregon resident for more than 50 years, Mr. Flanagan's stint with the city's fire department has spanned five decades since he first joined Station No. 3 on Bayshore Road.

He became a firefighter on Dec. 28, 1966, and just shy of three years later, he moved up to the engineer's position at Station No 3 - a position he said he enjoyed the most.

"You had to make sure all the equipment was working," he said. "It gives you a sense of responsibility because if it didn't work, you couldn't fight a fire."

In November, 1974, he was promoted to captain, then assistant district chief of that station 10 years later before advancing into the district chief position in March, 1986.

Throughout that time, he worked as a clerk for CSX Railroad until he was hired full time as the assistant fire chief and chief of fire prevention on June 9, 1986, a position he's held for almost 20 years. In that capacity he's been responsible for overseeing the paramedics, conducting building inspections, and investigating arsons, among other duties.

Through that time, he's seen a lot - not all of it positive. The worst experience he said he had was in 1991, when he was informed that one of his firefighters had died in a car accident while answering a call, and he had to break the news to the firefighter's family. "If you had a crystal ball and you told me I'd have to do that again, I'd quit," he said.

But he said the relationships that forms between the men and the women in the fire department makes it all worthwhile, including his friendship with Fire Chief Ray Walendzak.

Mr. Walendzak said Mr. Flanagan is a person who never bends the Ohio Fire Code, and has always made good decisions.

"He's very good under the heat of the battle," he said. "He's very safety conscious of the men on the scene, and he's not going to put them at any undue risk."

While he'll be spending time woodworking and traveling after retirement, one piece of advice Mr. Flanagan would give to 20-year-olds waiting until their 21st birthday to join the fire department is to make sure they know what they're getting into.

"It's just not a job anymore," he said. "You gotta have the feeling that you want to help somebody."



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