Willoughby Hills Fire Department marks 75th anniversary

Nov. 23—Founded in 1947 as the Garfield Division of the Willoughby Township Fire Department, the Willoughby Hills Fire Department is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

The department has had a long tradition of taking care of people and has made strides over the years, said Fire Chief Robert Gandee, who started with the department three years ago.

"This is an exciting milestone for everyone because we've got some great people who work for us and we've had some great people who have worked for us in the past, and they've gone on to do better things and become chiefs of other departments," Gandee said. "It's hard to believe how much time has gone by. We've increased our staffing; we got a new engine coming next year; we've come up with a 21-year plan for vehicle replacement and other strategic repairs to prolong the longevity of all our equipment and building."

Until 1980, the department used what is now Firehouse Grille and Pub on Stark Drive for its fire station.

"We decided to have an anniversary party and the appropriate location was the Firehouse Grille and Pub, home of the department before we moved down the street in front of City Hall," Gandee said. "We invited a number of neighboring fire chiefs because it's part of their success too. We all work together well."

As part of the celebration, a time capsule from the department that was put in in 2001 was opened. Old patches, documents, some old rosters and a bunch of historic materials were found.

"It was incredible to open up and see all of the different memorabilia," Gandee said. "Our plan is to update it and close it. Hopefully, in another 25 years, the next chief will have a similar process and go through the same excitement and remembrance about where the department has evolved from."

When he was 16 years old in 1981, Steve Nash started with the department as a cadet. During his 20-year career, he moved up to lieutenant and then to assistant chief.

Nash believes much of the department's history revolves around Charles Schumacher, who was the chief when he started. In 1971, Schumacher announced that 14 men from his department, along with firefighters from Wickliffe and Richmond Heights, would begin first aid training at Richmond Heights General Hospital. They were among the first in Ohio to do so, according to the department.

In 1974, the liability of paramedics operating in the field became a major issue, according to the department. Until then, medics has been covered by Good Samaritan laws, which protected them from criminal prosecution should an injured party become further harmed during treatment or a rescue attempt. It was becoming more evident that these laws were becoming obsolete.

A state task force was formed to make recommendations on standards for paramedics to be submitted to Ohio legislatures in 1975. Schumacher was a member of the Task Force on Advanced Training of Emergency Medical Service Advisory Committee.

"He (Schumacher) wasn't the first chief, but probably the most significant chief," Nash said. "A lot of folks don't realize suburban fire departments do EMS. That's about 70% to 80% of the business. Charlie was instrumental in writing the legislation in Ohio because there was a lot of push-back from a lot of doctors throughout the state. They literally would be quoted as saying, 'What next? Delivering babies?' Look where we are today because of forerunners like Charlie. For me, that's one of the biggest parts of the history of the department."

The department has always been a breeding ground for some of the most prominent fire officers across the state, Nash said. In the last few decades, roughly 300 people have come through its doors, some of whom have become fire, battalion, district and deputy chiefs.

"I ended up becoming a career battalion chief in Solon," Nash said. "They all started in Willoughby Hills because the training and the exposure to the magnitude of the calls that come in. You've got residential, high rises and the highway system. It's always been a crossroad for well-trained, young and hungry, incoming folks. I see that continuing on. We need that across the country."

Although firefighters see a lot of terrible things on the job, the great in people is shown as well as the ability to accomplish, adapt and to overcome, Gandee said.

"That's what every fire department is," he said. "They're problem solvers. When people don't know who to call, they call the fire department. We're a safety net for the community to handle any kind of problem from some type of event at someone's home that maybe an older person can't figure out to significant, complex incidents. We work together incredibly with our neighbors. If we didn't have our neighbors, we couldn't accomplish everything we have."