BY BRUCE STEINBERG
Have you heard the one about the octogenarian marathon runner or the septuagenarian tri-athlete? Me, too. Pretty impressive. Admirable. But how about the 67-year-old firefighter?
Elliott Sturm is that firefighter and he’s not assigned to dispatch or any other important task behind a desk. He’s the real-deal – climb-the-ladder-with-all-the-gear, put-out-the-fire firefighter; and he is, in fact, 67 years young, doing the job since he was 62.
In the Beginning
Elliott hadn’t planned on a retirement-aged career of fire-fighting. His wife Kathy says that in 2008, he had retired from Chicago Metro Fire Protection (a security and alarm company) and they were in the process of moving from Batavia, Illinois, to Saugatuck, Michigan. Elliott, applying his knowledge of security systems and his love of photography, at first “retired” by starting his own home and business-security company (Secure N’ Safe) as well as Personality Photo, both companies still in operation. Kathy also suggested he could volunteer for the area fire department to take post-fire photographs to help the fire department determine a fire’s cause, or help in training as well as in insurance claims. Immediately interested in the idea, Elliott was off to speak with a Saugatuck Township Fire District official about shooting fire scene photos, but instead came back with the announcement that he was going to go to the academy to become an on-call firefighter.
Elliott explained that he and Kathy had bought a home in Saugatuck in 2008, and that Kathy moved on ahead to take care of her mom while he travelled between Illinois and Michigan, preparing their Illinois house for sale while setting up his new businesses. Finally, in 2012 after the Illinois home sold, he moved to Saugatuck full time. Looking for extra income, he thought he could be helpful at the area fire department’s station using the fire-scene photography work Kathy had suggested.
“There were no such openings,” Elliott said, “But I did drive by a roadside marquee advertising for firefighter trainees.” When asked about his 62 years at the time, he answered, “The sign didn’t say ‘Old farts not welcome.’”
Elliott conceded that his initial thoughts were that the department was likely looking for 20-year-old types. Undaunted, he asked a friend named Erik Kirchert from his Michigan Dunes State Park hiking group, whether his 62 years would be an issue. Erik – a man in his 50s – was then, and still works as, an emergency medical first responder and firefighter with the Saugatuck Township Fire District.
“Erik said I would probably be a fit with the department because of my background in fire alarms, so he encouraged me to apply,” Elliott said. “The truth is the town is on the small side and doesn’t have a large pool of people wanting to be firefighters for small pay.”
While Kathy was certainly aware of the risks firefighters face, she thought the idea of her husband going to the fire academy to try to become a firefighter – even at the age of 62 – was a great idea.
“I saw his renewed enthusiasm and strong interest in giving back to the community,” she said. “I never considered his age as a negative because we both live our lives not considering chronological age, but how we feel. Elliott’s in good physical condition, and if the fire department officials weren’t concerned about his age, then I told Elliott to go for it.”
A Fire Chief Meets the Applicant
Saugatuck Fire Chief Greg Janik gave a no-nonsense, simple answer to the age question when Elliott showed up to inquire about a firefighting position: “We don’t have a space for age on the application.”
He went on to explain that it’s illegal in any case to ask a person’s age, and the department has had older men than Elliott apply.
“If the applicant meets the criteria, then we’re good to go,” said a laughing Chief Janik. “We don’t think of age. I was 44 myself when I joined and I’m 65 now. I appreciate both young and old on my staff to provide balance. We need the muscle of youth, but we also need the life experiences and calmer, panic-avoiding temperament many older folks provide.”
Elliott said at his first meeting with Chief Janik, he could tell right away the chief was not a desk guy.
“Like me, he had a long background in fire alarm systems,” said Elliott. “I offered up my age and other than the Chief’s joking remark – ‘If you get in, I won’t be the oldest guy here anymore!’ – my age did not come up in the interview. I had filled out the written application, went through the oral interview with the chief and thought it all went well. He liked the fact that I had a long background in fire alarms. If the department responds to an alarm to a commercial building or school – which in most cases are false alarms – I can read and interpret the control panel display, and direct a group of firefighters to the right area instead of the group having to generally search.”
When he met Elliott for the interview, Chief Janik said, “At first sight, I knew Elliott was very fit, that he took care of himself and I just didn’t see his age. What I sensed right away, in addition to his healthy appearance, was his drive and reliability. Still, he had to pass six months of training at the academy before he could become a firefighter for the Saugatuck Township Fire District. When hired, regardless of age, you’re a rookie, and you must go through six months of training and twelve months of probationary status. You must pass a written and practical test. If you don’t, you’re not a firefighter.”
Carry How Much Up That High?
The six-month training academy is held at another fire department in a neighboring town. Training included becoming expert at tying up to 10 specific types of knots, each with a specific purpose in firefighting. The practical part of the test put the age issue on the line whether or not it was asked in the application.
“I hear people complain about parallel parking SUVs,” Elliott said. “How about parking a 40-foot, fully loaded fire truck? At the Academy, I had to put on all my gear – including air tank, gloves, protective clothes and boots – all of which totaled 65 pounds, and sometimes with a blackout mask in my face piece so I’m essentially blind. Under those conditions, I had to perform tasks such as following a hose line out of a building (which is essentially a self-rescue exercise, where the hose has been curled and piled up) and trying to replicate being a lost and disoriented firefighter. Firefighters must develop the ability to feel hose coupling junctions, which includes distinguishing features such as ridges and lugs that provide the direction to the way out even when blinded by smoke. Another task was to wear that gear and climb a 20-foot ladder while also carrying an axe, to simulate breaking through a window while applying specific techniques to keep yourself and your fellow firefighters safe.”
While Chief Janik kept Elliott’s age on the back-burner during the interview, Elliott did take some kidding while at the academy.
Elliott said, “I heard from 20-somethings, ‘Need a nap now?’ and ‘They let you out of the home today?’ but I certainly gave it right back.”
A View from a 20-Something
John Mileskiewicz serves on the Saugatuck Township Fire District as a firefighter, sergeant and fire clerk. His father was also a firefighter and he’s only 25, second youngest on the force.
“I first met Elliott when he showed up to fill out the application,” said Mileskiewicz. “I had no idea how old he was, maybe his late 40s. He looks pretty damn good for his age. I remember at the academy asking Elliott, ‘How was Woodstock?’ but the truth is he’s done very well. The academy was brutal and he passed with flying colors. If he told you we had to carry 65 pounds of gear doing our practical testing, he’s being modest. It was 100 pounds of gear (something both Chief Janik and Kathy have confirmed).”
Since the academy, John makes clear that Elliott’s presence on the firefighting team is a marvel and that he’s got the mind and body to do the job.
“He’s always willing to learn,” he says, “but also has so much to teach, such as about fire alarm systems. He’s the most knowledgeable person about fire alarms around, handling them as easily as the rest of us brush our teeth. He’s well-aware not to put others at risk, and while we may sometimes call him ‘Grandpa,’ he’s right there with us. He’s not shy about letting us know how he’s doing physically, like all firefighters must do so none of us puts anyone else at risk. We can’t let pride get in the way and Elliott knows this most of all.”
Elliott says he feels no physical qualms. He keeps in shape – both cardio and muscle strength – by going to the gym and hiking the Michigan Dunes with his hiking group.
“Maybe I’m genetically lucky,” Elliott said. “I’ve always been slim, but more likely it’s because I’ve stayed active. Staying active has been a habit for 40 years. I can do everything physically, with the one caveat being that it may take me longer to recover.”
In the Line of Fire
Most fire alarms are false, not usually due to malicious intent, but because of human error –such as a dinner burning in the oven – and many are medical calls. But on one of those hot, sticky July days, where even the night offers little comfort, an alarm went to a responding department (typically the nearest department and therefore designated as in charge should other departments also get called in). This fire occurred at an old mushroom plant converted into a large dairy farm. An extensive L-shaped building: one section for milking cows, the other loaded with hay bales. Conditions: one-hundred-degree air temperature, full humidity, plus the firefighters’ full gear (called bunker gear) and the flames accompanied by heat and smoke. More departments from neighboring towns were called in, using a program called Mutual Aid. The Saugatuck Township Fire District got the call.
“There was no way to escape the heat,” Mileskiewicz recalled. “With the hay bales, you can imagine, the fire lasted 18 hours, and our department came in for six hours of firefighting in shifts.”
Elliott described the building as made of cement but filled with those big, round hay bales weighing more than 400 pounds each.
“You just can’t roll them out of harm’s way,” he said. “They caught fire and were extremely difficult to extinguish. So many hot spots kept flaring up. At four hours in, we got the evacuation signal on our portable radios. The chief decided that the building’s roof was in danger of collapsing and all the fire trucks blew their horns to signal immediate evacuation. The constant heat was in danger of weakening the roof and if the pre-poured concrete collapsed, no one inside would survive. There were about 25 firefighters in all, working 20-minutes-in, 20-minute-out shifts, making sure our air tanks did not get below 50 percent of their filled capacity. During those 20-minutes out, we were to take off our tanks and jackets to cool off, but in the heat and humidity, there was no relief. After a thermal imaging camera showed that the roof was at 200 degrees – which is considered safe for the concrete roof – we were allowed to go back in, going in as a crew, not as individuals. In the end, the building was saved, and it did not spread to the dairy side. Our team off the scene after six hours, physically spent, knew not to become a liability to another fire crew that suddenly must become a rescue crew.”
Elliott also made it clear that “this isn’t a factor of age – all of us have to recognize our physical well-being and limits, to let the next crew in our Mutual Aid system take over.”
As to Elliott’s age and his performance at this fire, John said, “It was a trying day. All of us were tired, but Elliott was right with us, and it wasn’t age that got to him – it was because we were in the thick of it, and after six hours, we were all gassed.”
Then, in the middle of winter, two years ago, an alarm went out for a residential fire, and the Saugatuck Township Fire District was the lead responding department. A two-story residence needed the ladder truck to hoist two firefighters to the roof – to create an access hole and attack the flames from above with their hose’s water stream to help keep firefighters entering the main floor safe, as well as to attack the flames. Fire Captain Jeff Dornbush was in command of that operation and took Elliott Sturm, then 65, with him up on the ladder and bucket, swinging the axe, spraying the hose and working with all the firefighters.
Elliott said, “This wasn’t a building filled with hay, but someone’s home. Although we put the fire out, and personal effects were saved, the structure was left unsound and the house had to be torn down. Thankfully the residents were not at home when the fire began. I have to admit, though, it was an exhilarating experience. This was exactly what I had trained for, and it was exactly what I was able to do no matter my age.”
Elliott Sturm is a father of two boys (Michael and Alek) and stepfather of Brent. He is the grandfather of Lucy, 9, and Nolan, 6. Elliott wants to make things clear.
“I aim to be a firefighter for another five years, and unless, something gives out, that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” he said. “Then I want to teach.”
Chief Janik is a fan of the idea.
“Elliott has drive and a keen sense of humor,” he said. “As an on-call firefighter, as opposed to a full-time, salaried firefighter, he doesn’t get paid unless called to an alarm. He has the dedication and reliability to do that. He’s got the attitude of a great firefighter. He’s calm in the face of an intense situation. Although his knowledge is vast, he listens as though he knows nothing, to absorb all that is said. He is unique, selfless, thinking of others first and doesn’t act with tunnel vision.
“I have him assigned to a night shift (4:30 pm to 6 am) every Tuesday to Wednesday, and he’s at the station alone, making only $23 for that one shift. It’s not about the money with Elliott, which is another reason why he is so respected and successful.”
As to five more years, Chief Janik simply says that he and the others do not see his age.
“Besides Elliott at 67, and me at 65, we have another 60-something on the force – Dr. David Blatt, an internist and a graduate of George Washington Medical School, who retired and returned to Saugatuck,” Janik said. “Why would I turn away talent and experience like that because of age? With Elliott, it’s a way of life, and he’s one of the first to volunteer even for unpaid tasks. He speaks at churches to give firefighters a presence in the community, and also volunteers at a local elementary school to help with a couple of curriculums. He also happens to be one of the best communicators with young children – a natural and does a great job with the pre-kindergarten through second-grade Life and Fire Prevention Program at Douglas Elementary School.”
In the end, Kathy Sturm puts her and Elliott’s attitude into focus.
“Don’t limit yourself because you think you are old,” she said. “Our age, as baby boomers, should not keep us from accomplishing our goals.”
See you at age 72, Elliott Sturm. Not for your retirement, but for when you move on to the next great adventure in your life.