When Steve Hawthorne, John Powell and Jim Vickery retired from the Daly City Fire Department they took with them 100 years of experience and service to the community.
But in the world of firefighting, where things can change in an instant and a small spark turns into a raging inferno, the loss of experienced hands brings new opportunities to young firefighters and new ideas into the force.
The department has 60 firefighters, and 18 are on duty at all times.
The three veteran firefighters, who retired this year, all graduated at Jefferson High School in Daly City within two years of each other during the 1960s, said Vickery, 57.
Vickery was an engineer with the Fire Department for 32 years after serving a four-year tour of duty in Vietnam in the Air Force. The formerly mustachioed man often battled with management — sometimes more fiercely than with a fire — over the length of his facial hair.
He said that when he started, there was only a six-week training course covering general practices, which meant that new recruits relied heavily on the more senior firefighters for tips and instruction.
“That first fire you go to, you don’t know what you’re doing,” Vickery said. “You need the experience, the ‘leather-neckness’ if you will, that these guys have.”
Nick Gracia, an engineer with Daly City Fire and the vice president of Local 1879 of the International Association of Firefighters, said the older firemen have different backgrounds and life experiences that they bring to the firehouse. The more senior guys have the knowledge that was imparted to them when they were new firemen in the 1970s and 1980s.
“You just feel like they have a lot of experience through life,” said Gracia, who has been in the department since 2001.
But because training and teaching methods have changed over the years, firefighters are coming in with more specialized experiences that can improve everyone as a firefighter, Gracia said.
“When you bring new energy into the department, that sparks something in itself that benefits the whole group,” he said.
There are also opportunities for promotion as captains have trained to become battalion chiefs and firefighters have trained to become captains, Deputy Chief Steven Brandvold said.
“In one sense you lose that experience, but you get a new sense of enthusiasm and it just keeps the Fire Department vibrant,” he said.