Departing Champaign fire chief shares thoughts on career, department

Departing Champaign fire chief shares thoughts on career, department

Champaign County emergency dispatchers will call Champaign Fire Chief Doug Forsman's name for the last time today (Thursday, Dec. 5) as he ends a 50-year career in fire service.

When Forsman was 5 years old he told his father, a fireman himself, that he thought he'd be a fire chief when he grew up.

And 62 years later, it seems he's been everywhere: He started as a 17-year-old volunteer in Kalamazoo, Mich., before stints in Stillwater, Okla.; Purdue University; Boston and Norfolk, Mass. In 1980 he came to Champaign for the first time as fire chief; in 1992 he left and went back to Oklahoma State University to head its fire service programs. Then it was off to Greeley, Colo., in 2002; and six years later, back to Champaign — again as fire chief.

Now he's ready to call it quits and head to Arkansas with his wife to be closer to his two sons, Kevin and Jon, and their families. Here are some of the things he'll be leaving behind after a 50-year career:

My first call as a firefighter: "Would have been in May 1963. It was a grass fire on Nazareth Road in Kalamazoo, Mich. No injuries."

The story I'll tell my grandkids about: "The fire here in November in 2008 (which took down the Metropolitan Building), where I wouldn't have given you a plug nickel for that entire block. We conjured up enough water and enough people and enough equipment to really hold it to the building and the next building. That's a good thing. It would have been a really devastating blow to downtown Champaign to lose that entire block. I've been to a lot of big fires, but I'll tell you what, there was plenty of fire for everyone that day."

My most embarrassing moment on the job: "I was responding to a fire. ... I was following the engine at a reasonable distance and knew we were going to a reported house fire. What I didn't notice is that the engine crew saw the fire essentially a street earlier than I expected them, and they were getting ready to turn left. I had a brand new siren control in the car. I was trying to figure out how to turn it off or turn it on. ... When I looked up, I was a lot less than 500 feet from the back end of that truck. The fire chief's car impacted the back of engine 13. The fire chief's car was clearly the loser in that battle. I was not injured. When the fire crew came back very quickly to determine that, they were having a great deal of trouble keeping their composure. The incident spread through the fire community within moments."

What I look forward to in retirement: "Not getting up in the middle of the night. The older you get, the harder that is."

What I'd tell the next fire chief: "He or she is inheriting a very well-run, well-organized machine. It's been around a long time, 100-plus years. It's a pretty busy department. It's a dynamic period for this community. I was telling people at the city staff meeting this morning, as I was leaving, I almost wish I was just coming now because it's going to be not only fun but challenging the next few years as it grows. Instead of 2008, when I got here, the economy went in the dumper, so it's not always been fun the last five years. I would tell the individual that they're facing a significant challenge, but they have a lot of quality resources. It's up to them to manage it."

I've never been featured in a fireman's calendar. "And I'm not real fond of those. They do exist. In Greeley."

Among the movies that have ever been made about firefighters ... "The worst was Towering Inferno. Amazing that you could even suggest that the way to put out a fire in a high rise was to go up and blow the water tank on the roof and that would put it out. Backdraft — you know, it's Hollywood, no question about it — but it was pretty well done. There was a good story to it, of course, but I think it brought to people's attention that word. ... What was mostly Hollywood about it was the pictures taken inside. Well, if you've ever been inside a fire, you can't see a foot in front of your face, so obviously those were natural gas fire and flames that are nice and clean and don't generate any kind of smoke."

What people might not miss about me: "I remind them every once in a while that 'happiness is a wonderful thing, but it's not required,' and I think they've gotten tired of hearing that. If somebody's groaning about something."

What people probably will miss about me: "It's important to have a sense of humor in the workplace, and it's important to have a sense of humor here. Some days, you don't have that sense of humor but you have to find it somewhere or you kind of go stir crazy because of the things that you deal with. We deal with people at some of the worst moments of their lives, and we deal with them with a great deal of compassion. And for anyone to think that doesn't hurt inside us, is wrong. It does. Perhaps we deal with that in a strange way, is to have a sense of humor. Not humor about the incident, but humor amongst ourselves. We kid ourselves a lot. We try to laugh as much as we can."

I'll miss being around the fire house. "I'll be reflecting upon that (tonight) when I walk out. It will feel strange. This is 50 years."

Forsman isn't getting out of the game entirely. The Fairfield Bay, Ark., fire department has already recruited him for some administrative duties. The alarm will be sounding much less frequently — Fairfield Bay gets about 40 calls per year compared to Champaign's 7,000 or so.

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