Assistant Fire Chief Jim Hoffman will retire Thursday, Sept. 30 with over 40 years of service on the New London Fire Department.
Hoffman is the last active member who served at the fire station on the corner of N. Water Street and Pearl St. (old city hall).
“That’s where it all started,” he explained. “I was working for Mike Coyle at the time, in the garage business, which was right across the street from the fire station. One night in spring or early summer of 1969, I noticed some the guys I knew at the fire station. Izzy Pelke was one of them.”
“I asked what was going on and they said they had a barn fire out in the country,” reports Hoffman. It turned out the fire was at a neighbors place – the Doug Thoma Farm – near the farmstead where he grew up.
“I asked Izzy if I could ride out there with him. He was getting refreshments for the guys that were still there. It wasn’t a bad fire, just hot hay,” he said. “I ended up helping roll hose and helped out at the station when we got back.”
Sometime that next week, Hoffman asked Mike Coyle if it was okay to put in an application at the Fire Department, and if he would be able to leave the garage for fire calls. Coyle gave him the okay and he turned in the application. There were several firemen retiring that fall, which left openings on the department.
“I started Feb. 1, 1970,” reported Hoffman. “Back then the training required was pretty basic, compared to nowadays when the training never ends,” he said. “When I got on, I spent maybe 4-5 hours to learn their procedures, compared to later years where we had to spend approximately 96 hours at Fox Valley Tech School for State Certification, just to get started,” he explained. Today, every member of the department builds on hundreds of hours in specialized training, and it is a continuous process at NLFD.
“These guys really make a commitment,” said Hoffman. “Firefighting gets in your blood, and makes your adrenaline flow every time a page goes out,” he adds. “It’s knowing that you’re serving the community that you love that keeps us going.” This is the hard part of retiring, he says.
“I retired from Sara Lee after 29 years. That was a job. Everybody has to have a job,” he explained. “This is a little different. This is a passion. That’s what makes a volunteer fire department what it is.”
In 1970 Bucky Besaw was the fire chief and at the time Ruben Voss was the chief engineer, who manned the station 24/7. Ruben and his wife lived above the fire station. His job was to keep the station and the trucks clean and answer the fire phone. “When a call came in he would put out a page to our ‘instalert receivers’, which were quite new at the time,” said Hoffman. “Before that they had to blow the fire whistle to call firemen to the station for a rural call, or operate the whistle in a manner that would indicate which Ward the fire was in. Ruben would take the first truck to the fire scene if it was in the city, or wait for firefighters to arrive to go to a rural call,” explained Hoffman.
Once in a while some of the firemen would tend the station at night to give Ruben a break.
“We would spend a night or a weekend down at the station, maybe cleaning the trucks, bays, answering the fire phone, or just watching the bats fly around inside,” said Hoffman.
“We had three fire trucks, the 1957, the 1947 and the 1967 Seagrave 75 foot aerial truck. At the time it was the pride of the city and surrounding area. We had no tanker truck for rural fires and we relied on Borden’s milk truck for hauling water, back in those days. When we did get an old milk truck to convert into a water tanker, it had to sit outside along the fire station because there was only enough room for three trucks, even though we moved the “Old Buffalo” to the city sheds. The tanker had to be emptied in the cold weather and refilled if we needed it for a fire.”
During Hoffman’s first year he remembers the new Safety Building was being built at the department’s present location on Shawano Street. “We were very excited about moving into a fire station that was large enough so each truck could have its own bay,” recalls Hoffman.
In 1971, the department made the move and Hoffman was promoted to assistant training officer, under Darwin Scheid who was a captain and training officers. By the late ’70s Hoffman was promoted to captain and training officer.
In 1992 four additional drive through bays were added and the fleet of trucks consisted of four engines, one 104′ aerial ladder truck, two tankers, two brush trucks, a rescue boat, one heavy rescue/Jaws unit, and the 1934 Buffalo Fire Appliance show truck.
In the late ’90s, former Fire Chief Wayne Wilfuer promoted Hoffman to assistant chief.
In 2008, after Wilfuer retired, Hoffman served as interim chief until October, when Bart Roloff was hired to succeed Wilfuer.
“Over the years there were many, many fire calls,” said Hoffman.
The highest amount he recalls in a single year is 135, though the department usually averaged about 100 calls per year. They range from major fire calls and incidents, to traffic accidents, Jaws of Life, river rescues and other requests.
“Of course there were some that are more memorable than others,” he reports. One such call was the death of a young man in a house fire, Dec. 15, 1979 on Smith Street. Another that Hoffman says will remain etched in his mind forever is the tragic Carew Family house fire on Nov. 13, 1998.
“There is hardly a day that goes by, I drive past that empty lot on Mill Street, that I don’t remember that terrible night,” explained Hoffman. “This is the type of call you pray you never have, but at the same time you have to be fully prepared for and able to accept when it happens.”
There were many wonderful times and memories on the department as well. Hoffman fondly recalls the family picnics, water fights, and camaraderie after meetings. “It was fun to have that chance to work with such a great group of guys over the years who are equally as dedicated,” said Hoffman. “I’m going to truly miss it.”
Although Hoffman will not be suiting up and riding the trucks out on calls after Oct. 1, he will be taking a new role for the department. Currently he is attending a 16-week course at FVTC for Fire Inspections. In his new role, Hoffman and two other members of the department will be conducting fire inspections for the city, a duty that will focus primarily on preventing fires before they happen.
“I guess I’ve kind of come full circle,” reported Hoffman, looking up at the light ballasts. “Geez – memories. A lot of memories,” he said.
Hoffman will also continue serving the department as a citizen, helping with fundraising efforts and preserving department history. “We have a wonderful community and a fire department we can be proud of,” he said.