Whitman family fights fires
By Angie Landsverk
Bob, Chuck and Andrew Whitman share more than the same last name.
They share a passion for serving their community as members of Waupaca’s fire department.
There are examples of local families in which both the fathers and sons served on the department.
The Whitmans are the first family to have three generations serve on it.
“Pretty great,” Bob said when asked how it feels to have his son Chuck and grandson Andrew follow his example.
Bob was a member of the department from 1956-1981.
“They needed firemen at the time. I had just moved to town the first part of 1956,” he said.
Bob grew up in Hancock.
After arriving home following his service in the U.S. Navy, he was put on Hancock’s fire department, he said.
“That is how things got started,” he said.
When Bob moved to Waupaca to take over the Standard Oil Station, “the smell of the horses was still in the barn,” he said of the fire station.
The department had a total of three trucks, and two of them were open cab, he said.
“There weren’t as many firemen back then,” Bob said.
He remembers responding to a marsh fire on a windy day with two other members of the department.
Those two members were brothers.
One of them was driving the truck, and the other was on the back of it with Bob.
“He was going right for the fire,” Bob said of the one driving. “Before we knew it, we were engulfed.”
Bob spent two days in the hospital.
“I sucked in the heat from the fire into my lungs. My eyelashes burnt off,” he said. “Needless to say, you don’t see that today. I don’t think the driver realized how fast the fire got.”
Chuck was young when that happened, but remembers it.
“You never know what you’re going to run into,” he said.
This past August marked 38 years ago that Chuck joined the fire department. He has been an assistant fire chief since 2000.
“I grew up with it. I was in town,” Chuck said of his decision to join.
He and his father overlapped on the department for a couple years.
“It’s like a family down here. I like doing it. It’s interesting, exciting,” Chuck said. “It’s a good thing to do for the community. It’s hard to find good people. It’s time consuming.”
National Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 8-14, calling attention to those who serve on fire departments.
Andrew joined the department in January 2008.
“It’s in my blood. I’m proud of how these guys have taken care of the community for years,” he said. “I wanted to get on for years and do the same thing. They were a pretty good example to me.”
There have been numerous changes since his grandfather and father joined, including the equipment and training.
When Bob was first on the department, there were no seatbelts on the trucks.
Chuck said when he joined, there were six bays.
There have been two additions to the fire station since he joined and all new trucks.
Members of the department did not start to receive training until a few years after he joined.
“It was self taught. A few years later, Fox Valley Technical College would do training at the station,” Chuck said.
Back then, they kept their gear at home, which consisted of a coat, helmet and rubber boots.
Today, there is much more protective gear for them.
“It’s changed a lot. Everybody on the department has changed,” Chuck said. “Every truck has changed.”
Even how people become members of the department has changed.
“Back then, firemen put them on. They were voted on,” Bob said.
Today, people are recommended, interviewed and then approved by the chiefs and fire district.
Andrew said the equipment they use today is 100 percent better.
The equipment offers better protection and is easier to work with when responding to fires.
It is also more expensive, costing between $1,400 and $1,500 to outfit one person.
Members must complete 120 hours of schooling before they can go on a call, Andrew said.
“You still learn just as much from other firefighters,” he said. “Each call, I try to learn something for the next one. Reading about a fire is a lot different than being in a burning house.”
Chuck said every fire is different.
“No matter what they teach, you learn as you go,” he said.
Members of the fire department also learn to live with a loss of sleep.
They do not dwell on that or on the number of meals with their families they have left.
“You have to be dedicated,” Chuck said.
Andrew said, “There are 30-some others who are also dedicated – losing sleep, giving up a lot to protect the community. Some people leave work and don’t get paid for it. A lot of guys are giving up a lot to be part of it.”
Bob said the support of spouses is important.
Andrew said they support the community as well through the auxiliary doing such things as volunteering at the Bread Basket.
The three generations of the Whitman family remember fires that destroyed homes, barns and businesses.
They say it is difficult to talk to their wives and children about it.
“It affects everyone differently,” Andrew said. “We all have ways of dealing with it.”
As the three of them sat at a table in the fire station, Chuck said, “We talk about things behind these closed doors that never leaves this room. People don’t need to know about it.”
When they get called to a fire, they “go as hard as they can until the job is done,” he said.
In addition to their service on the fire department, they serve the community in other ways as well.
Bob is a past city alderman and county board member.
Chuck worked for the county’s Highway Department and is a current city alderman.
Andrew works for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“I’m proud. We’re all proud,” Chuck said of the fact the three of them have been members of the fire department. “I was on the fire department when he (Andrew) was born. I was just as proud when he joined the department.”