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Rob Wylie looks back on 30 years of changes in firefighting

They’re starting to go now – firemen and police officers who are bridges between eras – those whose careers began in a simpler time and helped shepherd change in their departments as new responsibilities and demands emerged.

Former Cottleville Fire Chief Rob Wylie listens as County Executive Steve Ehlmann reads a proclamation in honor of Wylie's retirement and community service..

Former Cottleville Fire Chief Rob Wylie listens as County Executive Steve Ehlmann reads a proclamation in honor of Wylie’s retirement and community service.

Rob Wylie retired on Dec. 30.  He was chief of the Cottleville Fire Protection District for 11 years and before that a firemen in St. Charles County for another 19 years at other departments. He began his career as a firefighter with the St. Charles Fire District, then moved on to Central County Fire and Rescue, where he became assistant chief before being hired in 2005 as the Cottleville chief.

His work and dedication were recognized by county government officials on Jan. 9 when County Executive Steve Ehlmann read a proclamation to the County Council noting that the county “is pleased to acknowledge and applaud [Wylie’s] faithful service to county citizens and to county government.”

The proclamation lists the organizations and groups Wylie has worked with over the years, a glimpse into how the jobs of emergency providers have changed in the last 30 years.

Wylie served in a variety of capacities ranging from director of the St. Charles and Warren County Haz-Mat Team, president of the Greater St. Louis Fire Chief’s Association and the Professional Fire & Fraud Investigator’s Association, as chairman of the St. Louis Area Regional Response System, and as a member of the Governor’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, among others.  He also was a tactical medic and leader with the St. Charles Regional SWAT team for 20 years.

That experience reflects how firefighters today not only put out fires, but can be paramedics, safety experts and educators, emergency responders,  homeland security planners, and team members with other emergency responders. They also are masters of technology that offers new tools to do things they have never done before. Still, the dedication to save lives kicks in.

St. Charles County Police Chief David Todd said, “For his last hurrah, Rob was responsible for helping pull a woman from a burning vehicle while under gunfire in Ferguson. So he has served the county and citizens very well as a tactical medic and representing his fire service.”

Wyle, 55, has worked with Todd for years. He said he was proud of developing partnerships with other emergency providers and of building relationships– internally between management and employees and externally with district residents. The latter help the public to understand “what we could offer the community outside of just showing up when somebody has a heart attack or their house is on fire,” he said. “Our end goal was to be considered the agency of first resort not the agency of last resort.”

Times were simpler for firemen 30 years ago. “It was kind of like you went in there, you trained, you kept your equipment in good shape, and you waited for the bell to go off,” he said. “You can’t just do that anymore.”

Fire departments have to be more in touch with their constituents and show them where their tax dollars are used and why they are needed. He pointed toward the Cottleville Fire District, noting that “40,000 residents are paying the bills for the place.”

“We run roughly 4,000 calls a year that means you’re only making contact with only 10 percent of your population.  That’s not good especially when you need something,” he said.

Creating collaboration

Years ago, police and fire departments were “two sandboxes” that weren’t trampled on by the other. The county’s 10 fire districts, the county ambulance district and police department now work and plan together.

“St. Charles County has really become one big emergency services group,” Wylie said.

Even though house fires are generally down, due to good code enforcement and education efforts, issues remain. The house fires that occur often burn faster due to new building materials. Firefighters now have to worry about pipelines and flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, hazardous wastes being shipped through the area and more emergency medical response. Wylie said emergency response is 70 percent of district calls, and that the district is charged with protecting even more people when the workday population balloons to 100,000 from 40,000 residents.

Homeland security also has been added to the list of fire department responsibilities. It’s a list Wylie said will grow. “That’s going to continue because you have an agency of very highly-trained, motivated people that when something comes up and you look around and who is going to deal with this,” he said. “The fire department says ‘pick me I’ll do it.’”

Among the factors that have allowed this to happen are new technology and firefighters educated to use it. When Wylie started as a volunteer fireman in 1985, computers did not exist in stations, there was one radio in the truck and no cellphones. Later, the one computer they had when Wylie became assistant chief at Central County was used by the receptionist as a word processor. “Now if the computers go down I might as well stay home,” he said.

New technology requires more education. At least an associate’s degree is required to get promoted in some departments and master’s degrees for higher ranks. Few firefighters had college degrees when Wylie started. But some things haven’t changed.

“The kids that come into the fire service, they are just as hungry as we were when we started. They’re just as gung-ho. They want to do the right thing. They want to learn. They want to keep on the cutting edge of things,” Wylie said. “They just have more tools to do it than we used to have.”

Wylie said he plans to continue with consulting and teaching new firefighters. The job, he said, is still dangerous, but some funny and weird aspects of the job haven’t changed. Such as an incident during the December 2015 flooding along Dardenne Creek when a women refused leave her water-logged home to get into a rescue boat manned by firefighters. “The guys call back on the radio and said ‘she’s got this 185-pound pig and she won’t leave unless the pig comes,’” Wylie said. “I said unless it’s butchered and wrapped with paper it ain’t coming in the boat.”

Those are the types of memories, Wylie wants to take with him, and he said, “I’m going to miss the camaraderie.” He’ll also miss some traditions, including shared meals – yes, firefighters take a lot of pride in their cooking. But he said, “I’m not going to miss getting called out in the middle of the night when its 2 degrees outside.”

One thing that may never change – firefighters still rescue cats from trees. “Hey, the agency of first resort, right,” Wylie said. “Whatever people need.”


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