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Retirement for firefighter not an end to service

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By Tammy Shaw

 

Firefighters across the nation buck conventional wisdom. They run towards blazes, not away. Phil Schaad was one of those people for 45 years. 

For decades, he risked his life not for a paycheck, but to voluntarily help other families going through one of the toughest moments of their lives.

Schaad’s hunger to help others began at 6 years old when his own home caught fire after a lightning strike. 

Schaad’s family lived off U.S. 42 and Lime Kiln in Louisville. At the time, the area was considered “rural.” The Harrods Creek Fire Department didn’t exist, so firefighters from St. Matthews and Worthington responded. 

The thunderstorm dumped heavy rain in the area and, when firefighters didn’t have enough water pressure to fight the blaze, fire crews stretched a tarp across a culvert in the driveway to collect rainwater and save the home.

After the incident Schaad’s father gathered signatures, solicited donations and helped organize what is now the Harrods Creek Fire Department, then volunteered to go on runs.

The younger Schaad followed his dad and volunteered at age 14. 

“No one paid attention to child labor laws then,” he said. 

When the siren blared (no radios back then), if Schaad couldn’t catch a ride with his dad, he thumbed his way to the station, until he converted his bicycle into a motorbike with a kit and a lawnmower engine.

Schaad’s service as a teen was just the beginning. 

Throughout the years, Schaad volunteered for Harrods Creek, North Oldham and Westport Volunteer fire departments and is currently a volunteer certified training instructor at New Castle Fire Department. 

Soon after he married Kay, the couple moved to Oldham County and he volunteered at North Oldham, where he served 35 years. However, he worked at both stations simultaneously. 

He also served with the Westport Fire Department as a volunteer “for a couple of years,” he said.

When he retired as a volunteer from Harrods Creek at age 60 (a requirement), Schaad received a “length of service award,” similar to a pension, a minimal stipend paid monthly for life after 20 years of service. 

“My combined service adds up more than 100 years (with overlapping service at two department simultaneously),” Schaad, now in his early seventies, said.

If you feed them, they will come

Firefighters train constantly to hone their skills.

As a young man, Schaad rushed from work to training at the firehouse leaving no time to eat dinner. When he married Kay in 1972, she brought him supper to the station.

“The other guys would joke, ‘Where’s mine?’, Kay said. “You know guys.”

Soon after, Kay started serving dinner to every firefighter at Tuesday night training sessions and continued for 45 years.

Other spouses and girlfriends joined Kay and she remembers packing up her Jeep at times with hot chocolates and cookies for the firefighters at accident and fire scenes. 

“Food increases morale in training and participation,” Paul said.

Fostering love

The Schaads “had no natural children,” he said, but chose to offer their home to families going through emotional turmoil. 

Family life wasn’t without heartbreak. One of his unofficial “foster daughters,” Karen, broke her back in a car accident. 

“It made it impossible to care for her here,” he said. Karen later drowned at age 40. 

Her sister Laura, now 55, “is still a member of our household,” Schaad said. 

Laura’s husband was also a firefighter. He rose to captain at the fire station he served for decades and from which he recently retired.

The year after the two girls came into the Schaads’ lives, the family adopted an infant boy, Michael.

Michael died at 23 in a fiery crash. Harrods Creek responded.

 “It was difficult for them [the firefighters who knew Michael] as well,” Schaad said.

The Schaads are currently helping another family. The “foster family” lived with the couple for a year, then moved when the mom started a new relationship.

“We’ve adopted the girls as foster grandparents,” he said.

Serving the community

Two years ago, Schaad purchased an old Harrods Creek fire truck—he was one of the principal operators of the equipment before its retirement—from a man in Virginia. He and friend Rick Albers, a retired firefighter and former North Oldham Fire Chief, co-own the engine, which resides in Schaad’s tobacco barn. 

When Schaad found the truck, the user’s manual with his notations still sat in the truck.

Albers owns a second truck and the two men, for no fee, go to festivals like Patriot Days, Fourth of July celebrations, parades, birthday parties, weddings and funerals when asked. The two men drape a very large U.S. flag between their trucks’ ladders. 

Day jobs

Schaad worn many hats over the years, besides a fire helmet. 

His “day jobs” were as a mechanic, auto dealership service manager, a lab tech, an aerospace contractor (engineered honeycombed metal for NASA, used in Saturn rockets and Voyager 1 and 2), a private pilot, in public relations for a former major car brand and a forensic investigator for motor vehicle accidents, structural collapses and even air crashes for an engineering firm.

The Schaads rent out most of their land, on which a local farmer grows crops, but Schaad stays busy taking care of the barns and mowing the frontage and lawn.

Schaad has also been a cooperative weather observer for 45 years. He helps spot storms and other weather events moving through the area and reports daily precipitation to the National Weather Service.

Memories

Schaad has strong memories from his life as a firefighter, but his favorite was when a young man approached Schaad and other rescuers at TGIF one evening and thanked him for pulling him out of his car. The then-teen had moments to live, but a few of the fire crew had medical school training and saved his life. 

“He gave me a big hug. It was emotional,” Schaad said with a catch in his throat.

“Everything I’ve done is with the assistance of others in all cases, working as a team,” Schaad said.

As a “civilian” coming home late one night soon after he married Kay, Schaad noticed smoke from under the roof of an upstairs neighbor’s deck at the apartment building where they lived. 

He ran upstairs, where smoke poured from underneath the door. Kay called the fire department. Then the couple went door-to-door, pounding and shouting. One man collapsed from the smoke and was unresponsive. 

Schaad and another man broke down the door, crawled in under the smoke and opened the patio door to let in fresh air. “We were nearly overcome ourselves,” Schaad recalls. 

The blaze was “knocked down,” Schaad said, before the fire brigade even arrived. 

He also remembers a harrowing experience when he and a colleague responded to a condominium blaze in St. Matthews. 

“We were preparing to pull the ceiling when someone did a no-no and directed a 1,000-gallon stream of water above us,” he said.

The roof collapsed on top of the two men. “Some of it was on fire,” he said.

Firefighting is dangerous, he tells young recruits. “If you play with fire long enough, you’ll get burned.”

But fortune has smiled on Schaad. He was never burned or injured seriously during a fire, though he “came close.”

A toll on family

In Schaad’s firefighting days, Kay worried. “You never know whether he’ll come back or not,” she said.

Kay speaks with spouses and others dating firefighters. 

“I talk to them about what they’re getting into,” she said. She counsels the faint of heart “to get out now” if they can’t handle uncertainty. 

“You cannot be a successful volunteer in the long term without the support of your spouse,” Schaad said. “It’s essential.”

New Castle, he said, is a family organization and a “healthy volunteer fire department.” 

After his own son died, Schaad couldn’t continue forensic work anymore. His last case was his son’s charred car, where he found no mechanical contributing factors. “I couldn’t do it again,” he said, knowing how his only son died.

Life as a firefighter, “takes its toll,” he said. “You see ugly things that affect the rest of your life.”

 

 

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