Family ties have woven together the Savage Fire Department since the beginning.
Tom Stang Sr. moved to town and bought a service station, now the BP on Highway 13 and Lynn Avenue, in 1966. A friend and regular customer, firefighter Clem Gerald, told him the fire department needed volunteers who were always in town and asked him to join.
“I said, all right, I’ll give it a try, and if it don’t work out, it don’t work out,” he said. “Twenty years later, I retired.”
This month, his son, Tom Stang Jr., will retire after 25 years with department. Stang Jr. is part of a wave of old-guard firefighters with over 20 years of service retiring and making way for younger leaders in a changing department. When Stang Jr. hangs up his hat this month, three more firefighters with more than 20 years of service will be left and nearing their own retirements.
“Nothing has been in my life longer than the Savage Fire Department,” the younger Stang said. “To walk away is going to be weird, but the friendships that I have, and will continue to have and take with me ... what I’ll miss most is the camaraderie.”
Dennis Grisim, with whom Stang Jr. grew up, reached 30 years on the department before his retirement a couple years ago. Former chief Joel McColl retired earlier this year after 34 years; he and his brother, Al, were both chief in the footsteps of their father, who was a founding member.
Stang Jr. also remembers babysitting current firefighter Jake Von Bank. The Grisims, Von Banks and McColls are just a few of Savage’s generational fire families whose sons and brothers followed one another into fire service. Stang Jr. and his father collectively share 45 years of service.
Such long careers are becoming less common, said Mark Monson, who joined the department on the same day as Stang Jr. and plans to retire next year.
“The fire department was such a priority in our lives, and a lot of times our families took the backseat to that,” Monson said. “Now that 25 years have gone by, it’s really changed, and for good reasons.”
Most families have two working parents, Stang Jr. noted. He and Savage Fire Chief Andrain Roach said they expect 10 years of service before retirement will become the norm.
“You’ve got everything that needs to be done inside the home besides fighting fires,” Stang Jr. said. “People don’t live in town for 20 years anymore like they used to. People move all over the place, whereas I still live within 3 miles of the house I grew up in.”
Roach himself retired from the department after 10 years before returning last month to become chief. The department today is looking for ways to strike a balance between firefighters’ needs and the community’s, he said, and life lessons from the older generation are guiding the process.
“Have time with your family — it goes quickly,” Roach said. “That’s echoed and resonated a lot with us younger and newer folks.”
Years of service
Stang Jr. joined the department in 1994. He served as captain for eight years, training captain for two years and operator — driving trucks and pumping water — for most of his career. He said his biggest contribution was 22 years on the department’s relief board, where he spent 18 years as treasurer.
Stang Sr. served as fire chief for four years and a City Council member from 1976-1980. His fire service began long before 911 or an emergency dispatch center existed.
When there was a fire emergency, someone would call the fire department phone number, which would ring five phones around town. A couple were at firefighters’ homes, and one was at the liquor store.
“Because that’s where they knew they’d be,” Stang Jr. said. The original fire department started in a liquor store basement.
“Then they put beer in the station to get them out of the liquor store,” he added.
A firefighter would answer the call and then run to the old fire station near the Credit River and push a button to blow the siren. Then other firefighters would come running.
Growing up, Stang Jr.’s family life revolved around the fire department. He remembers many nights where the firemen would be out all night at a fire and his mom, a member of the ladies auxiliary, would bring food to the station.
“Sometimes it might’ve been what we’d cooked for dinner,” Stang Jr. said. Oftentimes the kids would tag along.
A strong legacy
When Stang Sr. began his service, there were only around 4,000 people in town. He remembers the department wearing rubber boots, rubber coats and plastic helmets.
While equipment is better and safety protocols more stringent, he doesn’t think the job is easier.
“There’s a big difference in fire service,” he said. “We had challenges, but we don’t have the challenges that they have today and what’s coming in the future.”
He said that everything that burns today is more hazardous, such as synthetics in furniture and plastic.
One thing hasn’t changed: “The people I served with, I was never afraid to go into a fire with any one of them,” Stang Sr. said. “They all had you’re back and you had theirs — and that’s the way it’s gotta be.”
“When the whistle blows, we’re a family,” Stang Jr. echoed.
Monson and Stang Jr. say the changes and new firefighters are welcome.
“There is some real good leadership coming up the ranks, and now they are all maturing and filling in wonderfully,” Monson said. “I have no doubt the Savage Fire Department is going to be left in great hands.”
Stang Jr. said the value on lifelong friendship is one of the legacies passing down to the younger generation.
“With the group of young guys I see now, I see the same relationship that we had at their age,” he said. “They do things with their families, they do a lot together with their kids, all that stuff that we did when we were younger.”
And while family, friendships and careers play a role in the department’s future, Stang Jr. said the job will always get done.
“Most men and women who volunteer to do something like this have it in their heart to do it, and nothing is going to stop them,” he said.