Andy Brodbeck had been an Archbold firefighter for barely a day back in 1977 when an early morning blaze broke out at Russell Wyse Refrigeration and Appliance.
He was so green with inexperience he thought the ensuing call to duty was simply a test of his dependability by the fire department. But he discovered otherwise, and arrived at the scene shaking uncontrollably from both fear and the cold January night.
Now, after responding to approximately 3,200 fire calls over a 40-year career, Chief Brodbeck retired Friday from the 40-member Archbold Fire Department. The 61-year-old village native regards the past four decades as a time that allowed him to serve his community and forge a bond with what he calls a great brotherhood and sisterhood of peers.
“I have no regrets. It’s been a blessing,” he said.
The mantle of leadership was passed over the weekend to Assistant Chief Dave Davis, a 25-year veteran.
Firefighting wasn’t Brodbeck’s first choice for a career. Following high school he worked at Sauder Manufacturing while owning and operating the Archbold Dairy Freeze with his wife, Sherri. A few years later, the couple purchased a catering business from her parents, which led Brodbeck to work with food service at Sauder Village, overseeing banquets and the Barn Restaurant. Ultimately, he became its director of business operations.
He joined the Archbold Fire Department as a part-time volunteer to fulfill an innate desire to help. “I have something built in me that I like to serve people,” he said.
But after Brodbeck’s first fire call, during which the frightened rookie was given a nominal task, “I thought, what have I gotten myself into? I knew nothing about it.”
Over the years it became a paid position, then Brodbeck was named fire chief in 1995. In 2004, it became a full-time job.
During his tenure, fire gear has evolved from a rubber coat, hip boots, and a plastic helmet to full fire-resistant body wear with temperature control and Bluetooth to allow clear communication. Self Contained Breathing Apparatus has evolved from respirators and air bottles connected by a sometimes unreliable hose to a mask. And hydraulic tools have replaced axes and crowbars to perform extrications.
EMS equipment has also improved significantly, resulting in more precise field work. “I would stack this county EMS system up against any EMS system,” Brodbeck said.
And Archbold’s fire department has joined all other departments in the nation in using the National Incident Management System for continuity purposes.
Brodbeck has seen both tragedy and heartwarming outcomes during fire and vehicle accident runs in every conceivable type of weather. He recalls a house fire when three infants were lost, and another when three children were saved. During a particularly frigid run the firefighters parked their engine inside the burning building to prevent it from freezing.
As fire chief, his worst moment came on Feb. 20, 2004, during what the crew thought would be a routine procedure to extinguish fire in a dust collection duct at Sauder Woodworking. Unforeseen circumstances caused the dust to explode, burning three firefighters, one of whom spent considerable time in a hospital burn unit.
All of them recovered, but the incident weighed heavily on Brodbeck. “The worst thing for any chief is to lose someone. Our motto is, ‘Everyone goes home,’” he said.
After pinpointing the cause of the explosion, the department produced a video reconstructing the event. It was requested as a safety guide by companies across the country with dust collection systems.
“We learned from it, and companies nationwide learned from it,” Brodbeck said.
His own close call occurred during a business fire earlier in his career. Following an eerie calm inside the building, an unexpected rush of flames blew off his helmet and knocked an overhead tarp onto him and another firefighter. Everyone escaped unharmed, but “that was probably the one time that I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” he said.
Brodbeck said during times of trauma and uncertainty department members lean on an amazing in-house, and if necessary outside, support system.
“We make sure we talk through it. We do monitor the officers and EMTs, and make sure they’re okay,” he said.
He also commended the Archbold community, which during difficult times has gathered to offer the department group prayer and support.
“What a blessing over all the years to be part of an organization like this,” Brodbeck said. “You have the opportunity to serve people, but you also have the opportunity to rub shoulders with great men and women, not only in your own department but in other (areas). You build relationships like none other I know of.”
Department negotiations with Fulton County administrators could be trying at times, but he took them in stride as part of procedure.
“The frustration part was sometimes trying to communicate properly so it was all understood clearly, so everybody ended up on the same page,” he said. “The differences of opinion came from their lack of understanding about the job. (But) I know a lot of it comes to dollars and cents at times, too, and that’s their job. They have to ask those questions. And it’s our job to try to do what we do as efficiently and effectively as we can.”
Brodbeck said he supports accountability and a checks and balances system, “but when it comes down to the actual operation and function, who knows best? I would hope that anybody in those types of positions would just say, ‘We have to trust that you understand what you’re doing.’”
Davis said Brodbeck’s absence will be felt deeply. “He brings a lot of stability we’re going to miss. He’s been a great mentor, and I know I have big shoes to fill. He’s well-respected around the county.”
Brodbeck said if he learned one lesson from his career, “it’s you’d better be a good listener. Don’t think you know the right answer until you’ve listened. Even though you’re the chief of the department, you can continue to learn.”
And while he won’t miss the sleepless nights associated with firefighting, he said it’s difficult to leave his comrades.
“A job’s a job…but the camaraderie, the people, being together even outside of the calls – I’m going to miss that,” he said. “They are an amazing group of men and women to work with, as are every department in Fulton County.”
His retirement plans include spending more time with family, acting part-time as Sauder Village Director of Development, and making up lost time with his wife.
“She is truly, truly a saint,” Brodbeck said. “If she had not been on board with all this, and continued to encourage me, I would not have been able to handle this.”
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.