Fire department honors retirees for service

Four firefighters ‘are truly going to be missed’

Recently retired Altoona firefighters (from left) Lance Johnson, Dan Drumm, Jim Campbell and Kirk Mitchell share a moment Wednesday at the Altoona Fire Department Station No. 1. Mirror photo by Calem Illig

Four recently retired firefighters with a combined 96 years of experience at the Altoona Fire Department were given a proper sendoff Wednesday during a ceremony at the department’s Station No. 1.

The four were each presented with a ceramic ax listing their years of service, and the firefighters said it was a special opportunity to return back to the place they called home for so many years.

“It’s pretty surreal that this all went so fast,” recently retired Captain Jim Campbell said. “I made a lot of great friendships along the way, and it’s nice to come back after a couple weeks and see all my buddies again. They’re brothers to me and I’ve missed them.”

Altoona Fire Chief Tim Hileman said the ceremony was an opportunity to give back to the four firefighters who devoted decades of service to the community.

“These four firefighters were stalwarts and tremendous people,” Hileman said. “They were dependable, they were loyal and they did everything for their community.”

While serving in the Army Reserves in the 1990s, Campbell was informed about openings at the AFD from a friend and future coworker, Kelly Weathersbee.

Though he had never given it much thought, Campbell was intrigued by the opportunity to “swing an ax and smash stuff,” he said. He made the commitment to join the department in 1998.

After a long career that saw him rise to the rank of captain, Campbell said it was fitting that after 24 years with the department, he ended his career hoisting a ceramic ax.

“Being a firefighter ended up being just the perfect opportunity for me,” Campbell said. “I never thought I would be a firefighter, but I’m so thankful for (Weathersbee) and everyone who has helped me along the way.”

Growing up, Lance Johnson didn’t idolize superheroes such as Batman or Superman.

For him, the bravest heroes were his local firefighters.

“I always wanted to be a firefighter,” Johnson said. “Even when I was young, it was something I knew I wanted to do. It was my dream, and I’m so thankful that it was able to come true.”

Chasing his dreams, Johnson joined the AFD in 2000 and retired as an engineer with the department.

A long-time member of the fire service after first volunteering with the Martinsburg Fire Department in 1982, Johnson made the transition to Altoona hoping to take his career to the next level.

He walked through the doors on his first day searching for a job and left 22 years later with a family.

“This really was my second family,” Johnson said. “It’s really hard to leave, because I just love all my brothers here so much.”

Outgoing Assistant Fire Chief Dan Drumm also always dreamed of being a firefighter and volunteered for 10 years before joining the department in March 2000.

Drumm climbed all the way through the ranks in his 21 years as a firefighter, starting out as a hoseman and eventually being promoted to captain and later assistant chief in 2013.

For him, Wednesday was one of the first opportunities he’s had to come to the fire station and just relax.

“It’s a very different feeling, because I don’t feel my chest tightening up, and I’m free of worry,” Drumm said. “When you walk through these doors, you have an obligation to make sure your brothers are safe. This job has so many responsibilities that you owe to the community, and it’s nice to come in here and finally just unwind.”

While he doesn’t miss the stress of the job, Drumm admitted that there is already a part of him that’s missing.

“It’s only been three weeks since I retired, but I really miss being here with the guys,” Drumm said. “I miss just cracking jokes and all the camaraderie we’ve had. We were all brothers.”

As one of the longest tenured firefighters in the department, now retired Captain Kirk Mitchell has experienced plenty throughout his 26-year career.

Despite all the late nights, emotional shifts and long periods of time away from his family, he reflected on his firefighting career as a “beautiful journey.”

“It was a huge blessing from God that I was able to serve my community, and a personal calling of mine while providing food for my family at the same time,” Mitchell said. “I love firefighting, and I love being a servant. I’m truly grateful to have had this opportunity and to do what I love for so many years.”

Mitchell, who joined the department in 1995, volunteered with Logan Township for 12 years before making the switch to full-time firefighting.

The veteran firefighter has worked alongside numerous first responders over his tenure, but he said that each person who was hired onto the job was another person added to his ever-growing family.

“You have to have your brothers’ back at all times,” Mitchell said. “When you walk through that door, you’re family, and everyone here will do everything to make sure that when your shift is over, you’re safely going home to your family.”

While the quartet stepped away from their everyday jobs, they still plan to stay involved with the first service.

An owner of a GoPro and drone, Johnson envisions himself possibly filming fire scenes to help firefighters for training and other purposes.

“I still want to stay involved,” Johnson said.

Although he won’t be able to ride a fire truck or rescue people from burning buildings, Mitchell is transitioning his first responder skills to a different field as he undertakes a role with the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Mitchell now oversees medical teams deployed across the county, and he hopes he can continue to serve his community in any way possible.

Others hope they serve as role models and remain good stewards of the fire service.

“The fire service has changed a lot in the past 25 years,” Drumm said. “Fires

are getting hotter, and they burn faster. We have to change up our tactics, and the training has to be more focused. The standards and responsibilities of a firefighter become higher everyday. We constantly have to up our game.”

The AFD is wrapping up a hiring process to fill seven open firefighter positions, and with the amount of experience the department is losing with its four retirees, Hileman admitted he has his hands full.

He said that if the values of respect, discipline, compassion and loyalty from the outgoing generation transitions into the new generation, the community will be in good hands.

“You can train a guy and give him the proper equipment, but all four of these guys brought something that was a little extra special,” Hileman said. “They are truly going to be missed.”

Mirror Staff Writer Calem Illig is at 814-946-7535.


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