Newaygo Firefighter Rolly Wolford Calls It A Career
By Travis Kroll
Our county depends on the hard work and dedication of volunteer/part-paid fire departments. The average career span of the volunteer/part-paid firefighter in the United States is only five years.
And then there is Rolly Wolford.
Rolly began his career in the fire service in 1983 with Fremont Fire Department. On April 29, he will retire after serving our county faithfully for the last 34 years.
So what made him become a part-paid firefighter?...
...“I was interested at 18 years old, but at that time (1975), you had to be 21 to be a member of Fremont Fire Department,” said Rolly. “In 1983, I was managing an apartment complex and had to put out a fire in an apartment with two, eight year olds still inside. Bob Geeting, former Chief of Fremont Fire Department, brought me an application after that.”
Rolly served with Fremont Fire Department from 1983 until 1993 when he moved to Newaygo.
Rolly was also a charter member of the Newaygo First Responders in 1993, and the only remaining member when they merged with the Newaygo Fire Department 19 years later. “For 19 years nobody was ever paid to respond to medical calls,” said Rolly. “We did not get any millage tax support, so we had to do fundraisers and apply for grants to get enough money to operate. We collected pop cans, sold flowers on Mother’s Day, had rummage sales and even sponsored a circus!”
That was enough for them to answer an excess of 500 medical calls per year for those 19 years. “The Lord always blessed us. There were a lot of very difficult challenges, but we got through every one,” Rolly remembers.
Those in the fire service can name the people who have influenced them and helped them grow over the years. Rolly credits Bob Geeting, and Gary Bolling, former Chief of Whitehall Fire Department, for teaching him a lot as a rookie firefighter. “I also have to thank Jim Uthe and Mike Hikade,” said Rolly. “Both made me feel welcome when I joined Newaygo Fire Department back in 1993.”
Rolly has seen a lot in his 34 years as a firefighter. When you ask him about his most memorable moments, it only takes him a second to figure them out. He will always remember his first structure fire, and the first time he performed CPR on some he knew. “Oh, and I delivered a baby!” exclaimed Rolly as he looks up from his cup of coffee.
Then there are the moments you learn from and pray they never happen to anyone. Like the time he fell through the 2nd floor of a burning home while trying to extinguish the fire. “I was lucky,” says Rolly as he reflected on that moment. “I survived and I thank god for that.”
A lot has changed in the fire service over his career. “When I started back in 1983, we breathed oxygen into your SCBAs, wore ¾ coats with hip boots and orange rubber gloves,” states Rolly with a grin on his face. That’s a drastic difference from the turnout gear and SCBA’s used by today’s fire service.
Today, Firefighter 1 & 2 is a 250 hour class. Back in 1983, it was only 66 hours! Another change, none of the Newaygo County fire departments ran medical calls. Today, six of the departments in the county run medical calls on a daily basis.
When asked what advice he would give a person who is considering becoming a part-paid firefighter, Rolly thinks for a moment and says, “As the Chaplain for the Newaygo Fire Department, I advise our new members to keep their priorities in order. For me it has been faith, family/friends, my job and then the fire department. If you make the fire department your first priority, all those other things will suffer. Being part of a part-paid fire department takes a lot of time from your family. Your family is very much a part of the department too. You need to learn to take a break and just be with them. They need to know family is more important than the fire department.”
It’s said to be hard for someone to leave the fire station for the last time after a long career. No more getting up for that 2 a.m. fire call, weekly training meetings with your brothers and sisters or the rush you feel when the pager tones drop.
Asking Rolly what he will miss the most, he said, “There is no better feeling than being part of a team that is willing to help people when they call 911. Being a firefighter/medical first responder is physically and mentally exhausting, but very rewarding because you are able to help people when they are having a bad day. I will miss serving those people. And I will miss the ‘fire family’, because they are the only ones that understand why we do what we do.”
What he won’t miss? Fighting fires on a cold winter night or blistering summer day. He is leaving that up to the “young guys”. He is also looking forward to sleeping all night, not hearing the pager go off two or three times.
“I will continue to be involved with the department as its Chaplain and assist with fundraisers,” says Rolly.
If there is one thing he will be remembered for, it’s his many catchphrases including “Be safe out there!”, “Put the keys to the truck in the same place every night”, “Pray on the way to every call, it works!” and his most famous, “Never pass up the opportunity to use the bathroom!”
While he reflects on his past 34 years and his upcoming retirement, the questions comes up, “what is your proudest moment?”
Without hesitation, Rolly replies, “watching my son Jason Wolford be appointed Chief of the Newaygo Fire Department.”
Join Newaygo Fire Department on Saturday, April 29, noon to 3 p.m. at Loomis Lodge in Newaygo to thank Rolly for his 34 years of service and wish him the best of luck in retirement!