Retiring Fairfield fire chief served 38 years with city

Don Bennett had, in 1996, envisioned Fairfield transitioning its combination fire department into one with nothing but full-time firefighters.

Twenty-six years later, Bennett’s goal for the city department ― outlined in a paper he wrote at an executive fire officer course for the National Fire Academy ― the chief said, “Here we are. We finally made it.”

“I just never lost sight of that goal,” said Bennett, who will retire as the Fairfield Fire Department Chief on Friday, ending a 38-year tenure with the city. Creating the career department, the 36 part-time positions will be converted into 18 full-time jobs, will happen because voters approved this past May a 9.25-mill continuing levy.

Otherwise, Bennett would have retired in April.

“There was no way I was going to bail with something as vitally important to the future of the department (undetermined),” he said. “There was credibility if I advocated for it.”

Any talk of retirement before the levy would be a distraction to passing the levy.

Very few knew when Bennett would be retiring, though it wasn’t a secret he would eventually step away. City Manager Scott Timmer knew when he took over leading Fairfield’s administration in February, and it wasn’t until recently others within the department were told.

“There are no skeletons, I didn’t get in trouble, I don’t have a DUI,” said the 70-year-old Bennett. “I don’t have any of that. I didn’t want to be gone in 90 days and people scheduling meetings and not inviting me. And talking around me.”

There was one thing Bennett did not want to be as he worked to end his 52-year fire fighting career: “I will not be a lame duck fire chief. I will work until 5 o’clock on my last day.”

Bennett was supposed to be already retired, but it was delayed a week because Deputy Chief Randy McCreadie scheduled interviews for the candidates for six new full-time positions that were funded through the recently passed 9.25-mill continuing levy, and “I wanted to be part of that interview (process).”

The decision to retire was tough because he’s been a firefighter his entire adult life, and was enamored by the position even before he graduated from Colerain High School. When he was 12 years old, he would ride his bike from his home on Stone Mill Road when the station would sound the firehouse siren (which is how the volunteer department summoned people).

“We would ride up to the firehouse to watch the fire trucks go out on our bikes, and then they would leave the doors open, and if it was close, we’d ride down and watch them fight the fire.”

Then he turned 16 with a car, and his area to explore increased exponentially. During his senior year at Colerain High School, his mother sent her husband to find out how a young Don Bennett can join the fire department. Her justification was, “You’re going to be there anyway, they might as well get some work out of you,” Bennett recalled.

But the fire service wasn’t Bennett’s career goal.

“My intent, up until high school, I was looking to be a music teacher,” he said. “I loved playing the saxophone and clarinet, that was what I wanted to do.”

He fell out of practice, and three years ago, his wife, Wendy, bought him a new saxophone, “and I can tell you it’s not like riding a bike. I got noise out of it and sounded like someone ran over a cat.” Eventually, the skills came back to him after 50 years of not playing the instrument.

But the decision to retire was not made lightly as the job over the last five decades became something more.

“It’s no longer what you do, it’s who you are,” he said. “I weighed everything.”

He knew when Timmer took over leading the city’s administration in February. He asked if he expected any fire department retirements. Bennett said, “‘Yeah, me. I just don’t know when.’”

Because if he waited for there to be no issues or problems, he’d never retire.

Bennett’s first fire department, once he was 18 years old, was a volunteer firefighter with the Dunlap Fire Department, which eventually merged with the Grosbeck Fire Department when the Colerain Twp. Fire Department formed.

He left Colerain in December 1981 to take on the fire chief at Hilton Davis Chemical, calling it “a very unique experience” as he was exposed to countless incidents, spills, handling of chemicals, and “really strange fires.”

The chief left the chemical company in 1984 to take be Fairfield’s first full-time fire chief.

The best words that were ever given to me, in guidance, when I took this job was from Chief Norman Wells of Cincinnati (Fire Department, 1980-89), he was an instructor of mine at U.C. When they announced that I had the job, we had lunch, and his parting words were, ‘Just remember, you can only be as good as they will let you.’ That pertains to anything ... but it resonated.”

Bennett stayed for 38 years because “the city of Fairfield was my home,” Bennett said. “I had ample opportunity to grow the department. There were significant challenges for all those years, which kept me going, and there were periods of idleness in terms of growth that were very frustrating. But I just wouldn’t give up.”

His admiration for the city was tested for 13 months when he was acting city manager following the resignation of former city manager Mark Wendling, and ending with Timmer’s hiring. He called it “a period of rejuvenation” learning the internal workings of various city departments.

But Bennett said he’s worked with “a number of excellent people,” which is what he’ll miss more than the job.

Two of those people are his deputy fire chiefs, both of who were hired by Bennett.

Deputy Chief Tom Wagner said the chief “was always looking ahead to ensure the department was ready for future growth, and part of that was providing sufficient officer development opportunities.”

Wagner said since being hired in December 1993, he’s been afforded several educational and training opportunities that was not just a benefit for him, but for the department.

“He has made higher education and training a priority over his tenure as fire chief by providing these same opportunities to other fire officers looking to obtain their associate, bachelor, or master’s degrees,” Wagner said. “Chief Bennett was always looking ahead to ensure the department was ready for future growth and part of that was providing sufficient officer development opportunities.”

Wagner said Bennett’s impact on the department will continue for years into the future.

“It is amazing to look back at what has been accomplished,” Wagner said. “He transformed a fire department from all-volunteer to being on the verge of becoming an all-career department. Clearly, he has earned the trust and respect of our city’s administration, elected officials, business owners, and residents of the city.”

Deputy Chief Randy McCreadie also had those same educational opportunities, from being a fire instructor, fire safety inspector, and an EMS instructor.

“He allowed me to participate and have a say in several department programs that broadened my knowledge base and ability to give back to the community,” said McCreadie, which included the fire department’s honor guard, the bike medic team, respiratory protection, and technical rescue certification training. “Most importantly, he taught me through his words and actions how to take care of the personnel of the department and that family comes first, no matter what.”

And that’s a big reason for Bennett’s retirement on Friday.

Bennett’s had a career where he has not regretted anything, and he doesn’t want a further delay in his retirement to be his first. As the chief told the Journal-News last week, he owes a responsibility to his family, particularly with his wife and grandchildren.

“I want to do it while I’m still physically able to enjoy the good things in life,” he said.

That starts after he clears out his office on Friday, which will be a good portion of the day interrupted by visitors as “everything is tied up,” he said, and isn’t leaving any loose ends.

Come Monday, he’ll likely start his day as usual: waking up at 5:30 a.m. making coffee, but at 7 a.m. his new routine will begin as “it will come to mind I’ve got nowhere to go.” Though, he said he has no doubts he’ll be able to fill his free time.

The “real transition,” he said, is when he opens his bedroom closet without uniforms but added, “I’ll appreciate having the additional room.”

Honoring retiring Chief Don Bennett

The city of Fairfield will honor retiring fire chief Don Bennett from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday at the Fairfield Community Art Center, 411 Wessel Drive. The public is invited.

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