Service all in the family for many local first respondersWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Firefighters and police officers often say they’re part of a family or brotherhood, but for many area first responders that’s literally the case.
Twin brothers Michael and Alfred Segura often saw each other on the job — Michael fighting a fire and Alfred directing traffic around the blaze.
Both are now retired, Michael from Toledo Fire & Rescue Department (TFD) and Alfred from Toledo Police Department (TPD). Younger brother Anthony Segura is currently a Toledo firefighter along with Michael’s son Lt. Greg Segura of Grand Rapids, Ohio.
“As a kid you just think it’s the coolest thing,” Greg said. “As I got older, into my teen years, I really started to get an appreciation for what he does. I thought it was a great career he had chosen and I wanted to follow in the same path.”
Not surprisingly, family gatherings are full of “shop talk.”
“A lot of firefighters will tell you this is the greatest job in the world,” Greg said. “It’s not for everybody, but when it’s your family and you’re talking with someone who has an understanding about what a fantastic job it is, it’s like, ‘I’m in, I want it, I’m sold.’”
Greg is currently stationed at the newly renovated Station No. 3 in North Toledo, near where he spent his early childhood.
“I used to wander into this station as a kid, walking to and from my elementary school,” Greg said. “I’d walk in and say, ‘Hey, my dad’s a fireman, too.’”
Greg laughed when asked if his dad was excited when he joined the department.
“I was told stories that he was walking around the station almost singing and dancing,” Greg said. “He told me one of the proudest days he’s ever had was when I got promoted to lieutenant.”
For years, father and son worked at different stations but on the same shift and would often see each other at fires. For a while, they served on the same rig.
“We were working side by side, which was really neat,” Greg said.
“It’s just a huge honor, it really is,” he said of the legacy. “You get the stories when you come on the job and your dad has already paved the way. You start to think, ‘I got big shoes to fill, I better step up and do something.’ It’s been more than well worth it.”
Toledo Police Deputy Chief Don Kenney Jr. has been on the job more than 30 years. His father, Don Kenney Sr., was a Toledo firefighter.
“I enjoy the camaraderie, the overall feeling you are doing something good for the whole of society,” Kenney Jr. said. “Just knowing you’re out there keeping people safe makes you feel good.”
Kenney Jr. is the father of two Toledo police officers, his son Sgt. Erik Kenney and his daughter Kellie Kenney, but talks about everyone in the department as if they were his children.
“It makes me proud these young men and women are doing this,” Kenney Jr. said. “They are doing a fantastic job day in and day out to keep people safe. We’ve got a pretty great city to live in thanks to the safety forces.”
Kenney Jr. said he gives his kids the same advice he gives every police officer.
“Always give 100 percent of yourself so when you go home you can look yourself in the mirror,” Kenney Jr. said. “You’re not always going to be patted on the back for the good things you do. You have to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Erik said he tries to follow his dad’s advice to treat everyone with respect.
“Sometimes you don’t get that returned but as long as you can say you treated somebody fairly it lets you sleep well at night,” he said.
Erik’s wife, Rebecca, is a Toledo police detective. They met on the job and have been married for five years.
“We worked on the same crew and one day we stopped a car that had two guys in it. I got my guy out and handcuffed. The guy on her side took off running and she started after him. I told her to take the guy with the handcuffs, that I’d catch him. That didn’t go over well,” he said, chuckling. “So that’s when we knew.”
For safety reasons, police officers rarely work closely with family, Erik said.
“They are pretty strict about that. For the most part, they keep families from working directly together and for each other,” he said.
“I always monitor both channels while Erik is working so I can hear what calls he’s going to and what he’s up to,” Kellie said. “I keep close tabs on him. If he gets into a foot or vehicle pursuit I do get more nervous, but I know that he is a safe officer and we all look out for each other.
“We always send each other texts when one of us gets a felony arrest. I usually receive a lot more texts than I send.”
Working holidays, weekends and midnights is something all rookies do, sometimes for years, Kenney Jr. said.
“There is a sacrifice in time with family on this job,” Kenney Jr. said. “When my phone rings in the middle of the night, it’s work and it’s nothing good. And it rings quite a bit. You just get used to it and know going in it’s part of your job.”
“My dad is more than 60 years old with the heart of a young street cop,” Kellie said. “To this day, he is still out going to calls with patrolmen and coming in on Friday nights and holidays because his patrolmen have to. This past Thanksgiving, he finished eating and got up to put on his uniform. I asked what he was doing and he said, ‘I’m going to spend Thanksgiving on the street.’ And he did.”
It’s a job all three Kenneys love.
“I am unbelievably proud to serve behind my grandfather, dad and brother in public service. I don’t believe I would be a police officer anywhere but Toledo; this is where my entire family has served. My dad is the hardest-working man I have ever met and I have so much respect for him.”
Wayne Hartford has been with TFD for 30 years. His son Chris Hartford joined last year and is also a volunteer firefighter for Perrysburg Township.
“This is the greatest job in the world,” Wayne said. “Every day is different. The time off and benefits are great for families. You come into work every day and your office is a big, red fire truck with lights and sirens. It’s kind of exciting.”
Wayne said he never pressured his kids, but it means a lot to him that Chris chose to join.
“Besides my children being born and getting married, it was probably the proudest day of my life,” Wayne said.
“[Fellow firefighters] will say to me, ‘He’s a good kid’ or ‘He’s a good worker.’ That means more to me than anything else, to have the acceptance of my brothers in blue about him. That’s huge.”
Chris said he feels “privileged” to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
“It means a great deal to me,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always looked forward to and now I’m finally able to do it.”
However, it means Wayne’s wife has a “double worry” now that their son is on the job, he said.
“She knows we’re going to do what we can to be safe and be careful, but things happen. That’s just our job,” Wayne said. “[With Chris] I usually end all our phone conversations with ‘Be safe’ or ‘Be careful,’ and I know that he will be. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. But it’s always in the back of my mind, absolutely.”
Father and son agree the job has brought them closer.
“I really think we’ve become friends, not just father and son,” Wayne said.
Wayne’s younger son, David, took the most recent fire test and is waiting to see if he makes it.
“I’m not sure I’m going to be around long enough to see him on the department, but that would be cool,” Wayne said.
Firefighter Lt. Tom Viertlbeck of Toledo said worrying about your kids is just part of being a father.
His sons, Lt. Matt Viertlbeck of Whitehouse and Pvt. Andy Viertlbeck of Temperance, are also firefighters.
“It’s kind of fun to work together with your son,” Tom said. “We’ll be on runs and they’ll say, ‘Hey Dad.’ The first time Matt did it, it took me a step back, like, ‘Hey, my son’s really on the job.’
“I felt honored they would follow in my footsteps on the fire department. It’s a very rewarding job, a very challenging job, a great career.”
It can also be dangerous. Tom once broke his leg falling through an attic floor. In 2005, Matt was en route to a fire Tom was at when a vehicle collided with the truck, injuring four firefighters, including Matt.
“They know how dangerous the job is and they are pretty cautious,” Tom said. “I think it’s just a father’s instinct to worry about them, especially in this profession.”
Jenny Hill of Waterville and her father, John Leopold, who retired in 2008 after 33 years with TFD, were the first father/daughter pair on the department and Hill was the first second-generation firefighter/paramedic.
“I remember my dad coming home and I always wanted to hear about his runs, but I didn’t think about doing it myself until later,” Hill said.
Her great-grandfather, Clarence Ehrsam, was also a Toledo firefighter.
She said it can help to follow family members on the job.
“It breaks down barriers and makes it easier to meet people. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I know your dad.’ It’s a conversation starter, but you still have to find your own way,” Hill said.
Battalion Chief Mike Nicely of Sylvania didn’t always want to be a firefighter like his dad, retired Capt. Pat Nicely of Delta. He joined the Army instead and intended to go into teaching.
“Being in the Army woke up an adventurous spirit I didn’t have before,” Mike said. “We call ourselves legacies. It’s like getting in the family business.”
Pat said his most memorable fire was the two-day Willis Day Business Park fire of 1985. He and his crew were on the roof when they noticed it starting to crack. They got off just before it collapsed.
“I never worried about him as a kid because dads are indestructible, but I know my mom worried,” Mike said. “By the time I got on he was an officer, which is still dangerous but the probability goes down, and besides he was damn good at what he did.”
Pat was a drill instructor for Mike’s training and Mike directed Pat’s last fire.
“My last day on the job, he was filling in as a paramedic and it just so happened that his life squad was there before my engine and he directed my last fire, so that was kind of neat,” Pat said.
Pat said many firefighters don’t talk about their jobs with nonfirefighters, even family members. Even among fellow firefighters, there are some things many don’t talk about.
“I feel kind of embarrassed talking about things I’ve done,” Pat said. “I brought out three people in my career. Other than just saying that, I’ve never said that to anybody else. Two survived and one didn’t. You just happen to be there at the right place at the right time.”
Pat, who now volunteers once a month at the Toledo Firefighters Museum, retired in 2010 after 35 years.
“It’s the camaraderie and every day is different. You’ll hear that from everybody. You’re there for 24 hours and you become a family. You cook together. You sleep in the same area. I loved it,” Pat said. “I thought I was ready for retirement. I wasn’t.”
Retired Assistant Chief Robert Schwanzl has a teenage grandson considering the fire service. If he joins TFD, he would represent the family’s fifth generation of Toledo firefighters. Schwanzl’s grandfather, Frank Schwanzl, joined TFD in 1900 when rigs were still pulled by horses. His uncle, James Hays, joined during the Great Depression. Schwanzl retired in 1998 after 40 years of service. His son Joe retired last year.
“My two proudest moments were when [Joe] was sworn in and when he got promoted,” Schwanzl said.
As assistant chief, Schwanzl was often called away from family functions.
“If you had to go, you had to go. It didn’t matter,” he said. “I got up from the dinner table a number of times when we had a house full of company.”
Schwanzl paused when asked if he ever worried about his son.
“Every now and then you might have a little heartburn over what you hear over the radio or what you see going on, but I don’t think I ever had any real concern because I knew he could handle himself and his crew,” he said.
Glenn Hill and his wife Meredith are both firefighter/paramedics. They work different shifts at the same station so one can always be home with their children.
“We’re best friends,” Glenn said. “We share stories with each other all the time and it’s so cool to be able to relate.”
Meredith was on the scene of the North Toledo apartment fire that killed two firefighters in January. Glenn got a text saying there were two firefighters down and CPR in progress. It wasn’t until later he realized the text was from another firefighter and not Meredith.
“Had I known at the time it was him that sent that and not her, I would have freaked,” Glenn said.
Meredith worked on Pvt. Stephen Machcinski, but he later died along with firefighter Pvt. James Dickman.
“To have it be one of our own is something I will never get past. It’s something I think about every single day and replay it in my head,” Meredith said. “[Glenn’s] been extremely supportive. We’re just a huge support system for each other.”
They met through ambulance runs to ProMedica Toledo Hospital, where Meredith was working as a security officer while waiting to hear from TFD.
“I’m always questioning him because he has 10 years experience on me,” Meredith said. “I’m always looking to him for advice.”
Both wanted to be firefighters from a young age.
“I always enjoyed the thought of helping somebody out. I feel like it’s my calling,” Glenn said.
Jamie Ferguson of Toledo also always wanted to become a firefighter.
“It was still that little boy fascination,” Jamie said. “My dad was a volunteer firefighter at one point and I liked to watch them work. I never got it out of my system.”
When his son David joined, Jamie was proud.
“To say it’s a rewarding job would be an understatement. It’s not for the faint of heart, but you get to make a big difference in people’s lives every day.”
Jamie now serves as public education officer, giving fire safety presentations. Once he was giving a presentation when David fell through a floor at a fire.
“I knew he was OK but as a dad you just want to go be there,” Jamie said. “Now I know what my wife goes through worrying about me. There’s inherent risk in this job that you just can’t get away from. But you have to trust in the training and in making good decisions because you can’t dwell on that.”
On David’s first day on the job, he worked a double fatality fire.
“That was tough. But the good days far outweigh the bad days. It more than balances out,” David said.
“I like being of service to my community. I’ve always told my dad I would love to make as much of an impact on the department as he has, but I know I’ll never get close.
“It’s truly the greatest job in the world. My dad’s been telling me that since he got on and now that I got on I understand.”
Tags: Alfred Segura, Anthony Segura, Chris Hartford, Clarence Ehrsam, David Ferguson, Don Kenney Jr., Don Kenney Sr., Erik Kenney, fire, Frank Schwanzl, Glenn Hill, Greg Segura, James Hays, Jamie Ferguson, Jennifer Hill, Jenny Hill, Joe Schwanzl, John Leopold, Kellie Kenney, local heroes, Matt Viertlbeck, Meredith Hill, Michael Nicely, Mike Nicely, Pat Nicely, police, Quest for Fire, Robert Schwanzl, TFD, Toledo, Toledo Fire & Rescue, Toledo Fire & Rescue Department, Toledo Fire Department, Toledo Police Department, Tom Viertlbeck, TPD, Wayne Hartford