Retiring fire chief serves on MSTC Advisory Committee

May 13, 2013

From “Retiring fire chief reflects on 31-year career” — Marshfield Fire Chief James Schmidt retires May 24 after more than 31 years of service to the Marshfield Fire and Rescue Department. I had a chance to sit down with him recently to reflect on his career and more than three decades of service to the city of Marshfield.

A Wisconsin native, Chief Schmidt grew up in the Fox Valley area and attended school in Appleton. His father worked for a large fire apparatus manufacturer in Appleton, and his uncle worked for a fire department in the Milwaukee suburbs. The seeds of a career in the fire service had been cast. Upon graduation, he enrolled in the Fire Protection Program at Fox Valley Technical College, graduating in 1981. He completed the cadet program a Grand Chute and Oshkosh Fire departments. Shortly after graduation, he landed his first full-time career in the fire service with the Kaukauna Fire Department.

A strong work ethic and a desire to serve the public in concert with all the ideologies of a new recruit were met with the realities of recession and budget cuts. After only six months on the job, the new recruit’s position was eliminated.

Newly unemployed in a recession that was affecting most municipalities in Wisconsin, Schmidt began testing state-wide for positions. On April 5, 1982, he accepted a position with the Marshfield Fire Department.

Clayton Simonson was the fire chief at the time. The Marshfield Fire Department was in the process of addressing a referendum regarding the Optional Powers of the Fire and Police Commission, the reorganization of the two platoon shift schedule, and a paid-on-call firefighter program. Firefighters had many questions for Schmidt about his time at Kaukauna, Oshkosh and Grand Chute and the schedules and operations at those locations.

He served as an acting lieutenant/relief lieutenant before being promoted to deputy chief of the Red Shift on Aug. 7, 2001. In that capacity, he was responsible for the city and county hazmat team, the Fire Investigation Team and specialized rescue programs. He secured a grant for the purchase of rescue vehicles, equipment and training as part of a Central Wisconsin Collapse Rescue Team. He was a fire investigator for the city and served on the Wood County Fire Investigation Task Force as secretary/treasurer and president.

Schmidt was instrumental in developing the regional training center in partnership with Mid-State Technical College. The training center is one of his proudest accomplishments. As a fire service instructor, he recognizes the complexities of emergency service response and making sure our rescue workers are prepared.

Schmidt is on the board of directors for the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, co-chairman of the Wisconsin Technical College System Fire Service Advisory Committee on Education and Training and chairman of the MSTC Fire Service Advisory Committee.

People always are curious about rescue workers’ most memorable calls.

“You remember a lot of calls for various reasons,” Schmidt said. “The calls that seem to stick with me are the untimely deaths of the young, whether it is by traumatic accident or illness.

“If pressed, I would say the Central State Supply fire on Depot Street early in my career was one of the more memorable because I was treated and released from the hospital for smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion,” Schmidt said.

“I also responded to a fatal fire that same year where a young child perished. I can still see vividly the image of the lifeless child being carried in the arms of another firefighter from a second-story closet.”

The downtown Magic Moments fire on April 1, 2005, was the largest multi-agency fire response Schmidt commanded.

In three decades of service, the biggest changes in the Marshfield Fire and Rescue Department from Schmidt’s perspective are the development of the paramedic ambulance service, the advancements in personal protective equipment, firefighter safety and the cost of vehicles.

When Schmidt started in 1982, the annual fire department budget was $800,000; this year it was just under $4 million.

Other notable changes are in training and education. We have a more educated workforce, and advancements in state and national standards have increased the need for more training to meet the many varied emergencies to which today’s fire departments respond.

“I am happy to say the fire service has become more proactive versus reactive,” Schmidt said. “The fire department culture has become more professional and less traditional.

“We have become the risk managers of our community,” he said. “We spend more time identifying potential threats, analyzing the risk, and assessing our vulnerabilities.”

“Through our fire prevention and training efforts, responsive fire codes, improved building design, and cooperation from the general public, the number of significant fires has been reduced,” Schmidt said.

“We still have far too many fires that could have been prevented by adherence to simple fire safety practices,” he said.

Two accomplishments he is proud of are the part he played in the development of the regional training center and the construction of the new fire station. However, he is most proud of his role in changing the organizational culture of the department.

“The high level of cooperation that currently exists within the organization has helped us overcome most any operational challenges we have faced over the past six years,” he said. “The fire service truly becomes your second family, and when the alarm sounds, regardless of any interpersonal conflicts, all members work as a team for the common goal of saving the life or property of someone they typically have never met.”

Schmidt said, “I’ll miss the camaraderie, and I am confident the department will continue to adhere to the basic philosophies: treat people the way you want to be treated, make decisions that are best for the community and department and do what you can to leave the department in a better position than we you got there.”


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