Former Waterford Township Fire Chief Dennis Storrs hung up his boots in December after serving the community for 35 years, and his tenure with the fire department brought in a bevy of changes that left a mark on the township. Over the past three decades, he has seen fire fighting service transform, due in part to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the availability of new technology. Now that he is retired, Storrs reflected on his years with the township and its future given the initiative that merged the Waterford and Pontiac fire departments, an effort he was involved in prior to his departure. Storrs resides in Goodrich, Mich., is the father of 3, but lost a son in 1999. He is also a proud grandfather of four.
What did you find to be the most rewarding aspects of the job?
DS: Basically, it was just helping people in their greatest time of need.
What would you say were the most difficult aspects of it?
DS: There were quite a few, but really the toughest times is when somebody lost somebody very close to them and we were right there — the people doing the job, witnessing what was going on, and seeing how much pain it caused the family.
You have been called a visionary primarily responsible for bringing the department into the 21st century. Share with us some of the highlights of your career and how you feel you transformed the department?
DS: I feel like really the people around me transformed the department, if anything. I believed in the people we had and the talents they possessed, and the passion they had. What I tried to do was give them the tools to do the job they felt they needed to do. I think probably everybody being on the same page on a lot of issues was imperative to where we went.
How has fire service evolved over the last three decades?
DS: When I first came on, the guys before me and I first started in fire service did not wear self-contained breathing apparatus and they went into fires with nothing. A lot of those guys, unfortunately, have succumbed to a lot of medical conditions because we didn’t realize at the time the dangers of plastics burning and things that went along with it. A lot of it has to do with the safety of the firefighters, but the spectrum of what the fire service is now expected to take care of (has broadened to include things) like weapons of mass destruction, trench rescue, high angle rescue, medical emergencies, fires, terrorism and everything that goes along with it. We have to have experts in all of those different categories. That has increased exponentially over the last three decades.
You held virtually every role in the department, from firefighter to paramedic, from lieutenant inspector to fire marshal, and finally to chief. Did you always know this was the career for you?
DS: I started off and was in business for myself before I came on the fire department. I was making a good living, but I wanted to help people. That’s when I decided that I wanted to go into the fire service. As I’ve said before, I wanted to be a professional baseball player, but found out very young that was not going to happen, so I chose this path because it was a path that I could give back to the community. You feel fulfilled at the end of the day when you help somebody.
How did all these roles help prepare you for your job as chief?
DS: I’ve got to say that probably the role I had in my life to best prepare me for chief was being a coach. I coached wrestling for years and years, and was head coach for the state of Michigan for 8 years through the USA Wrestling Committee, which was up to and including the Olympic team, and that was before I became chief. I had to give up coaching when I took over the chief’s job. That prepared me more than anything else because it taught me how to get people to agree even if they didn’t at first, how to motivate people that may have needed motivation. It taught me to pull back some people who may have been charging too hard and searching in certain situations. So not only (did) the roles I played within the department prepared me, I think coaching and that aspect of my life prepared me well, too.
Can you talk about one or two memorable fire events that impacted you?
DS: I think the first big fire I remember was (when) I was off duty and all of us were called in because it was a small department at the time. It was at the corner of Andersonville Road and Dixie, the Old Mill Tavern, which was an iconic building in Waterford’s history, right where the stage coaches came through. We lost that building. It was in the middle of the night. I got a call at 4 a.m. to come in. By that time, the building was pretty much lost. That was a tough one.
We’ve had a number of fires, but we had a fire once when I was on for a few years. When we got there, there was a woman and a boy left inside. The young man had some handicaps. He was in the basement. When we went down we did get him out, but we had to hold him up to a window to get air. We found him after a search. Both of them made it. That’s a good day. Fortunately we had paramedics on the scene and treated them for smoke inhalation and got them to the hospital.
What did you learn from these experiences?
DS: Everyone of them is different and you can’t take anything for granted. That’s the thing about firefighters. They have to be able to change in a moment’s notice because the situation may change in a moment’s notice and you can’t hesitate.
You were responsible for getting municipal EMS service off the ground in Waterford. This has become a revenue generator for the township and a service for residents. What prompted you to explore this service?
DS: It seemed like at the time that it was the natural progression. Waterford was the third city in Michigan to have paramedics. At some point, you want to be a full-service unit and the best thing for continuity of treatment is when a paramedic comes to the scene and starts treating you or your family and they’re talking with that doctor at the hospital who’s guiding them as needed. They put you or your family in the back of that ambulance and take you to the hospital and drop you off to that doctor that we’ve been talking to, (so) there’s no break in treatment. In these days and times, I don’t need to tell you there a lot who have lost their jobs and medical coverage. We were seeing more and more that are rescue units were roving emergency rooms/doctor offices. We saw a need for the citizens of Waterford and that played a big part of it because firefighters historically always step up to what they see as a need for the citizens.
What other accomplishments are you proud of from your tenure?
DS: I would say I am extremely happy with the people left in charge who are taking over. The people I’ve had the opportunity to work with and how they’ve grown into the men and women they are, and how well that the Waterford and Pontiac departments… are meshing together and the great job the guys from Waterford and Pontiac are doing.
The department has undergone significant change over the last few months, particularly with the deal struck with the city of Pontiac. Please talk about your role in that effort. What will this do for Waterford, and can you share any insight into how the morale is among firefighters now that it has been implemented?
DS: Being retired, I still talk to a lot of the guys. Everything points to that it’s being very well accepted. They are working well together. We really are happy with the quality of guys from Pontiac and how they’re meshing with the people in Waterford. We knew they had an outstanding group of people down there all along. We knew there would be some growing pains. I’ve always said that for some people, change is uncomfortable; for others, it’s downright painful. But the one thing that we have to look at is everything is going to change. We knew something like this was inevitable. We knew this was coming, maybe not with Pontiac, but with a consortium of departments for up to 10 years. That was in my opinion. There’s a lot of people that would fight that to the day they die. The salvation of fire service and the protection we have, people are going to continue to form mutual working relationships. This was the first of many. My role in it was working with my township Supervisor, Carl Solden, who did an outstanding job, and the (Pontiac) Emergency Financial Manager (Lou Schimmel). My aim was that it was evident that it was going to happen. My main aim was, No. 1, to best serve all the residents of Waterford and Pontiac; and No. 2, make sure every person from Waterford and Pontiac had a job, if possible, at the end of the day. I was looking at the families of those guys that are out there doing their job everyday to the best of their ability.
Working in such a high-risk job, there must be a trust among fellow firefighters. Please explain the type of bond that develops among them.
DS: It’s a brotherhood/sisterhood. We now have a female firefighter that’s outstanding and that’s something that’s coming — there’s going to be more and more of them. I refer to (it) as a brotherhood because that’s been my career. When you’re in a fire and you’re on the nozzle of that hose, and you’re going in to put that fire out, there may be fire all around you, you need somebody behind you that you know, if something happens, they are going to grab you by the nape of the neck and do everything they can in their power to take you out of there and take you home to your family. That’s the bond that it grows from. When you’re on a rescue rig with a couple of paramedics, you almost know without saying what that person’s going to do from working with them and knowing them. I mean, you live with them 24 hours a day. You know when their kids are sick, when they and their spouses have a row, when their moms and dads are aging and they have to take care of them — you know all that stuff. It’s a family. It really is. I always stress that and try to treat the fire department as a family because they are my extended family because they always have been and always will be.
What made you tap Ron Spears as chief?
DS: Actually, Ron tested his way to the top. We don’t have it like everybody else. You have to test your way up and it’s a competitive testing. It’s a written test and oral interview with outside sources. I get a chance to give chief points. Ron is an outstanding candidate. He’s been fantastic… he’s been invaluable. He ran our EMS Academy when we decided to start it. He’s got strong moral fiber. He’s just a good person all the way around and an intelligent person. He gets along well with people, he’s motivated. It was obvious. I always knew he’d do a fantastic job when I left.
How do you think the department is running since your departure?
DS: From everything I hear, it’s doing very well. I talked to Ron the other day. He feels good about it. I talked to some of the officers and some of the troops. Overall, I think it’s doing very well. (With) the huge transition they’ve made over the last few months, I don’t think you could ask for much more than what they’re getting right now.
Now that you’re retired, do you regret your decision to hang up your boots?
DS: No, everybody knows when it’s their time and 35 years was (mine). I had been thinking about it. I told everybody I had a two-year plan. I knew for two years I was going to retire. I didn’t expect this Pontiac/Waterford thing to come at the end of my career, but it did. I looked at it as one more challenge before I left. That’s the way you have to look at things, but no, I don’t regret it. I really am happy with how things are going and the people I left in charge. I don’t think I could have done much more. I think I took it as far as I could, and now it’s time for the younger and newer guys to take the next step. I am totally confident that they will do that knowing them as long as I have.
What have you been doing since you retired and what goals lie ahead?
DS: I’ve never been off this long in my life. I’ve had a job since I was 12-years-old and I’ve never been out of work. I’m still not kind of out work because I’m doing some consulting work on the side, but my wife and I have spent some time together. We’ve been to Florida a couple times. We have a place down there. I’ve been on a really nice snowmobile trip up along the Lake Superior rim when we had some snow that one time.
I’ve spent a lot of time with my kids and grand-kids, and that’s always a joy to me. I light up anytime I get to spend time with my kids and grand-kids. And just doing some things around the house and property that I’ve wanted to do, but never had the time, because being chief is a consuming job. If you’re going to do it right, it’s 24/7, 365. You are never off. It doesn’t matter where you’re at or what you’re doing. You could call a vacation and be 5,000 miles away, but when you come back, you’re still responsible for everything that went on while you were gone. When I walked out, it was a huge weight off my shoulders. I’m just now kind of getting used to it. I’m enjoying my time. I’m taking my time to get back into things. I’m looking to starting my own business here and I’ve been in business a number of times before because I’m too young to sit around. I’m looking at a lot of other options, but still trying to help and give back to the community I came from.