Michigan fire chief celebrates half century as firefighter
By TRACE CHRISTENSON
Nov. 13, 2017
BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — It's not a record, but Larry Cochensparger has been a firefighter for a long time.
The chief of the Bedford Charter Township Fire Department started his career in 1967 and has just marked a half-century in the fire service.
Just as when he was recruited, Cochensparger, 78, stills lives across the road from the fire station in the village of Bedford, and is usually the first to respond to fire calls.
He has no plans to retire.
"I am not going any place. This is just marking 50 years," he told the Battle Creek Enquirer . "As long as I have a good group of guys I will continue to do this until my health says we better call it quits and then I will wrap it up."
Not many firefighters have had as long a career as Cochensparger although Gary Greenfield, 81, of Bellevue ended a 55-year career in 2016. And a search shows a few firefighters around the country have worked a half century although most city departments have a mandatory retirement.
A few years ago Cochensparger made it a goal to make 50 years.
"It was what I was stretching for for a few years, that is what I was looking for," he said.
He has received proclamations from the State of Michigan and letters and accolades including from the Calhoun County Board of Commissioners and the Bedford Township Board as well as State Rep. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek.
Cochensparger was out of the Navy and working at Ralston Purina when Manley Black walked down his driveway and asked if he would be interested in volunteering with the department.
Black wasn't a firefighter but lived in an apartment above the fire station in the village and served as a dispatcher when fires were reported.
"He came across the road and said, 'You want to be in the fire department?'" Cochensparger recalled. "I just said I would give it a shot."
He can't remember if he talked with his wife Bonnie before agreeing.
Cochensparger was issued some equipment, shown how to run the engines and a week later was on his first call to a car fire on Lacey Road in Barry County's Johnstown Township which was then part of the Bedford fire district.
"When the calls came in (Black) set the siren off and when I heard that I didn't have far to run to get a truck," he said. "I was home when the siren went off and I got a small rig and headed on out that way. It was fully in flames. The pump was on the back and I got it started. Then another guy showed up and he still had shaving cream on his face and he didn't know if I knew how to operate the pump. Going up there I hoped I could get it out or it will just burn some more until someone else gets there."
Cochensparger estimates he has answered more than 13,000 calls since.
He also has seen big changes in equipment, exchanging black rubber coats to protective material for firefighters and a huge upgrade and expense in fire engines. Aerial trucks now cost $1.3 million, he said.
He said the new equipment, including air packs, coats, pants, boots gloves and helmets are designed to protect firefighters but outfitting them can cost about $3,500. It's a major expense for a small department. New firefighters must undergo more than 200 hours of training, much more than when he joined the fire service.
Finding people willing to devote time to the fire department is challenging, he said.
"We are looking for 24-7 volunteers," he said. "If you are around we expect you to respond to the alarms. The biggest drawback is the time commitment."
Cochensparger explains to potential recruits they will be out at night in the cold when a tree falls across the road or a house is on fire. Being a firefighter means they will be called away from the Thanksgiving table or other family events.
"We inform them of what we expect of them," he said. "It's is not an easy job. When the call comes in and they are on the way they should start thinking about what can happen."
Cochensparger moved up the ranks of the department, becoming assistant chief in 1995 and 12 years ago he was called in by former Supervisor Anne Armstrong and offered the position of chief.
"I said, ah hell, I might as well," he recalled, this time after talking to Bonnie. "It's been real fine ever since then."
Information from: Battle Creek Enquirer, http://www.battlecreekenquirer.com