LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - After 35 years of service, Lafayette Fire Capt. Dave Thelen is retiring — leaving behind a profession that has shaped his life and created lasting friendships. At his first assignment, Thelen trained on the job with more experienced firefighters at Station No. 4, then located on Wabash Avenue.
"It was almost all fires back then," Thelen told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/ZltzZQ ). "Sometimes you'd go in and a pan on the stove would be burning, and some fires we'd go in and the whole place was in flames. We did some extrication at wrecks, but we had a lot more fires."
Three decades and countless technology upgrades later, Thelen and his current co-workers spend little time fighting fires.
The difference is noticeable to Ryan Altman, a 10-year veteran of the department.
"We're doing a lot more medical runs than when I first started," said Altman, who had emergency medical technician (EMT) training before joining LFD.
In fact, medical calls accounted for 74 percent of the Lafayette Fire Department's emergency runs in 2011.
Only 5 percent of the calls were for fires, and 21 percent were for non-fire runs, such as hazardous-materials spills, false alarms or public events.
The shift from fighting fires to medical response began in the late 1990s when then-Mayor Dave Heath required firefighters to go through emergency medical services (EMS) training and assist on medical emergencies.
"When the fire service looked at the community and saw the needs, we were strategically located, equipped and staffed to respond to medical emergencies," said Chief Richard Doyle.
The transition wasn't easy for those who started out with the emphasis on protecting property, not people.
"I think a lot of us weren't real fond of it, but fire departments across the country were doing it," Thelen said. "The number of fires had died down and you have to justify your existence."
Now, medical runs are second nature for Thelen. For Altman and Darren Chase, the reason for leaving the station is secondary.
"It doesn't matter what kind of call it is," said Chase, who has 4 1/2 years with LFD. "The calls go from one extreme to the other, with some people calling for the littlest thing all the way up to someone having a heart attack."
"There are times you're woken up out of a dead sleep to go on a medical run that turns out to be nothing and it kind of gets frustrating at times, but you do what you've got to do," Thelen added.
As the demand for service has changed, so have the training, the trucks and the tools.
"The equipment we use now is leaps and bounds ahead of where we were when I started," Thelen said. "When we do have fires, there are more toxic materials, so we've got to have our personal protection equipment and breathing apparatus."
"When I started, there was a stack of red books in the station, and you had to study to take a written test every quarter," Doyle said. "After three years as an apprentice, you took a final written test and practical test and then you became a journeyman."
Before becoming chief, Doyle was in charge of training recruits and veterans at the city facility on County Road 500 East.
"There's Hazmat, EMS, basic firefighter training and technical rescue," Chase said.
"It's systematic, and we can recreate just about any situation we need to," Doyle said.
And the training never stops.
"You have to be self-motivated," Chase said. "You have to keep up on things on your own. At the engine house, we might take a truck out in the parking lot and work on water flow, water pressure or setting up ladders, whatever we need to work on."
Although the men have had different experiences in the department, they share a common bond of service.
"Every day is so rewarding; there's no better job in the world," Altman said. "Not everyone has a chance to help somebody when they really need it."
"I enjoy helping people and I always strive to be of service," Chase agreed.
"We come into the job to serve others," Doyle said. "I'm looking for people with passion for the job."
"Yes, I would do it again. It's the best career I could ever imagine having," Thelen said. "I've done things I never would've had the opportunity to do, and the biggest thing is the guys. You're like a family because you spend as much time with them as you do with your own family."
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