McCrabb: Retiring Monroe fire chief chased his dream as a young boy

Chief John Centers says he always wanted to be a firefighter, a goal he reached nearly 40 years ago.

For as long as John Centers can remember — he guesses he was 3 years old — he has been fascinated by red fire trucks.

While his buddies chased the bells that alarmed them an ice cream truck was approaching, Centers was more interested in the sweet sound of sirens.

One day, the young boy dreamed, he’d be one of those firefighters.

“There was always excitement and fanfare of riding on that fire engine,” he said. “I never got past that or outgrew that.”

Now, more than 50 years later, Centers is retiring from the fire service, 33 years with the city of Monroe Division of Fire, 11 as fire chief.

Sometimes, thankfully, reality outperforms dreams.

“Pretty emotional” is how Centers described the final days of his public safety career that began in 1984 when he volunteered as a firefighter/EMT in North College Hill.

His office walls in Monroe’s fire headquarters on Ohio 4 used to be lined with framed certificates and wooden plaques.

But now, Centers, 56, is removing those dusty awards off the walls and shelves and placing them in cardboard boxes. He will take them to his Monroe home and probably never look at them again.

His memories mean more than mementos.

There was no hesitation when asked if one emergency call stood out during his career.

It was the fire seven years ago at Ohio Living Mount Pleasant Place Apartments. Monroe firefighters were credited with removing residents as multiple lightning strikes sparked the fire. Those firefighters were recognized the next year with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC)/Motorola Solutions Ben Franklin Award for Valor.

Centers said the firefighters saved eight lives. He called their actions “heroic.”

The firefighters were lucky to survive the fire, Centers said.

The fire was “the most stressful that I ever managed in my career,” Centers said. “I got to see what I knew with our staff; their the level of commitment, training and knowledge when conditions were at the very worse. They came as close in their careers to being severely injured or drying at a fire. It was that close to them.”

As fire chief, Centers said his job is to take every necessary step to assure his firefighters return home in the same physical shape as they started their shifts. He tries to purchase the most advanced equipment, provide the best training.

“We know the risks that goes with the job,” he said. “If things don’t go as planned you end up burying some firefighter over it.”

He paused, took a deep breath, then added: “That would be the worst nightmare as a fire chief.”

Centers has had two heart attacks, the first when he responded to a serious car crash at Ohio 63 and Main Street in 2008, the second that required quadruple bypass surgery during a 2021 family vacation in Florida. He said he died on the operating table.

Through it all, Centers said Kristina, his wife of 34 years, never has left his side. She has nervously waited in the emergency room after Centers was injured on the job, understood all the missed Christmases, birthdays and holidays and survived all the sleepless nights.

“Without a supportive wife,” he said, his voice crackling, “I could not have made it through this.”

Then his eye started to fill with tears.

“I can’t imagine what she has had to endure,” he said. “It’s a dangerous job, and you know, stuff happens.”

She pinned Centers every time he was promoted from firefighter to lieutenant to captain to assistant chief to chief.

They have two sons, Cody, 30, and Cameron, 29. Soon after he was hired in 1990, Centers moved to Monroe and never considered leaving.

“This was home back then and it’s going to stay home,” he said. “We like the hometown feel of this community.”

Even in retirement, Centers knows he’ll be called “chief,” though he won’t hold the rank.

Once a chief, always a chief.

“It’s exciting to be that guy,” he said.

Yes, dreams do come true, sometimes with a happy ending.


1984: Volunteer North College Hill firefighter/EMT

1985-88: Worked for Courtesy Ambulance Service

1988-1990: Hired as a field paramedic by the University of Cincinnati Trauma Center

1990: Hired as a firefighter/paramedic with the city of Monroe Fire Department

1991: Promoted to lieutenant/platoon commander

1999: Promoted to captain/platoon commander

2000: Promoted to administrative captain

2003: Promoted to assistant fire chief

2012: Promoted to fire chief

March 1, 2023: Retiring as fire chief

SOURCE: Monroe Division of Fire records

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