He thought he was too old to be a firefighter. But now, he’s finally living his dream in Hamilton.

Toby Howell, when he turned 31, became too old to join Hamilton’s fire service. But nine years later, he was able to join his hometown’s firefighters, and he loves it. The city recently lifted the age ceiling requirement for new firefighters. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Toby Howell, when he turned 31, became too old to join Hamilton’s fire service. But nine years later, he was able to join his hometown’s firefighters, and he loves it. The city recently lifted the age ceiling requirement for new firefighters. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

When Toby Howell turned 31, he was informed he was too old to achieve his childhood dream of becoming a Hamilton firefighter.

Eight years later, Howell achieved that childhood dream, joining his hometown’s fire service at age 39.

“I really wanted to be here, so I worked really, really, really hard on getting myself mentally and physically prepared,” he said.

Howell was able to join Hamilton’s fire service in 2017 because the city lifted the age ceiling for people wanting to join the city’s fire and police departments. It sought to increase the number of quality candidates for jobs, increase candidate diversity and add people with more life experience.

The candidate physical ability test Howell had to pass takes about 10 minutes and requires a stair-climb, hose-drag, equipment-carry, ladder-raise, forcible entry, search, rescue-drag and other physically difficult tasks.

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“One of the things I struggled with when I first started training was you have to wear 75 extra pounds, on a stair machine for 3 1/2 minutes, I think it is,” he said. “I had to train to get myself to be able to pass that test, because I was not fresh out of high school.”

Howell dreamed of being a firefighter while growing up in the city’s North End. The 1997 Hamilton High School graduate is now a firefighter and paramedic.

He’s a married father of three, with daughters Mackenzie, 14; Addison, 7; and Bowen, 6. His wife is Casey.

“I could remember sitting in my second-story window on Pine Street, looking out the back window, watching them for an hour or two fighting a garage fire,” he said. “I remember the big green truck pulling up at Grant Elementary when we had fire alarms and we’d be evacuating the building. It’s deeper than it’s just a job for me.

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“Growing up, as a kid, I wanted to, but then moving into high school, I kind of lost sight of what I really wanted to do. Out of high school I went into road construction. I saw dollar signs, but a few years into my working career, I wanted to do something more fulfilling.

“Shortly after 9/11, I wanted to pursue something more fulfilling than what I was doing, so a couple years after 9/11, I started as a volunteer firefighter where I lived, in Trenton. That’s really where the passion started, being able to do that.”

He kept his full-time road-work job for three years while he volunteered there and got initial training to become an emergency medical technician and firefighter at Butler Tech. He later took fire classes through Scarlet Oaks so he could pursue the fire-service career. In 2007, he left road construction to work part-time at Fairfield Township’s fire department.

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He worked several overlapping years as a firefighter in Fairfield Township, Fairfield and Blue Ash, and began testing at other departments, seeking a full-time position. He also went to medic school, and that eventually happened in Hamilton.

Fire Chief Mark Mercer is pleased with the addition of Howell.

“Couldn’t be more happy,” Mercer said. “He shows up to work every day with a good attitude, good experience. He’s where he wants to be. Great asset to the citizens. He’s a top-notch guy.”

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