By Brandi Makuski
“It was June 2, 1985; that’s when I started, so just shy of 32 years,” said Jeff Davis, as he sat behind a desk at Stevens Point Fire Station No. 1.
Davis mulled over his past 31 years with the department — longevity that is rare in local public service, according to Police and Fire Commissioner Gary Wescott — with mixed emotions that he didn’t always hide well.
“I think I always wanted to help people; my mom was a nurse and worked in the OB, she delivered babies and would always come home with these great stories,” Davis said. “Sometimes there would be a heartbreak, but I always thought it was a great way to help the community.”
Older male relatives also left an impression on Davis, and he tried his hand at studying biology because of an uncle.
“But that wasn’t for me; I couldn’t sit behind a desk all day,” he said. “One of my other uncles was a firefighter, so I wound up going to Fox Valley Tech for firefighting.”
Davis was an unpaid cadet at the Oshkosh Fire Dept. for about a year, where he’d inspect equipment, wash vehicles and take out garbage — all duties a full-fledged firefighter must take on.
“It was great training,” he said. “So when I walked in the door here I already knew what to expect.”
SPFD was the first job opportunity for Davis following school, but he certainly wasn’t expecting to get hired.
“In the fire department, there aren’t regular openings; you have to wait for someone to retire or quit before there’s an opening,” he said, “so I was kind of blown away by it, to be hired right off the bat.”
Two years after taking the job with SPFD, Davis said his hometown of Oshkosh beckoned with an offer for full-time employment, but Davis stayed with Stevens Point.
“All my family lives in Oshkosh,” Davis remembered, “and I thought, ‘Ya know, it’s my first time away from home, I think I’ll just stay here because I don’t want to pick up my mom, dad, uncles, grandma in an ambulance.'”
A lot has changed since Davis first began working for the city. Initially, he said, firefighters were only required to have basic EMT training.
“A fire science degree was only a plus back then,” he said, chuckling. “And the EMT-Basic [class] was, I think, a 40-hour course back then.”
But shortly after Davis was hired, SPFD upped the ante to require EMT-Intermediate certification; about a decade later, the department changed requirements again, requiring full-blow paramedic training.
“That was about 1,000 hours of training, [ambulance] ride-alongs, time in the ER, the OR, the pysch ward…it was a long year, but well worth it,” Davis said.
That training has come in handy countless times, he said.
“The calls that give you the greatest joy, I think, are delivering a baby,” he said. “I’ve probably done that seven times and it’s a really cool experience to clamp the chord, have the dad right there and have him cut the chord. And people who were unconscious and you were able to bring them out of it, bring them back, that’s definitely a great feeling.”
“Several babies were born in the back of the ambulance; several were born in the living rooms we’d been called to,” he said, recalling one incident in particular.
“We checked her in the living room to see if she was crowning, but everything was OK. But we started down the sidewalk, then she kind of reared up, pushed her arms forward on the cot and said, ‘Baby coming!’, and then there was crying,” he said, laughing. “It was really something.”
But there are plenty of circumstances, he said, where the medical training doesn’t help.
“I’ve had some hard times where I’ve had people die in the back of an ambulance while I’m holding their hand or comforting them,” he said, his eyes looking down. “Then you get to the hospital, and you’re one of the first ones to run into the family and actually tell them their loved one has died. Once in a while there’s a message that the person in the back of the ambulance says, ‘Hey, tell my husband or wife that I love them, tell the kids I’m going to miss them,’…you can get pretty involved in it.”
Davis also recalled several graphic automobile accidents in the late 1980s and ’90s, mostly on county and state highways before they were transformed into four-lane roadways.
“It was astronomical how much death and dying we saw back then,” he said. “When you go to scene and see four dead teenagers, it’s pretty unnerving. You’re just there to do your job, but it’s tough to look at that, to see kids in the prime of their lives suddenly cut short.”
Davis said his catharsis is the simple joy of being alone in the outdoors. He and his wife live on 100 rural acres near Amherst, and he said just taking a walk around the grounds takes away a lot of the job stress.
“There’s also a lot of black humor that goes on in the fire department…if we told everyone about it, they’d think we were pretty sick, but it’s our way of blowing off the stress of the job,” he said. “You can’t get sucked into the bad parts of this job; you have to be professional. After the job is done, we can think about the magnitude of it all. A lot of these guys have kids; and those are heart-wrenching calls. When a kid is sick or hurt, that’s tough to deal with.”
Davis said the one thing he won’t miss about his job is the politics involved with being an assistant fire chief.
“That’s hard for me; I’m a pretty task-oriented person, and it’s normally in a very timely fashion,” he said. “Going to all these meetings, then set another meeting…then form a committee…it just seems like it’s a slow process, and it eats at my character,” he said. “I like to just get things done — never put off tomorrow what I can do today.”
But when it’s all said and done, what he’ll miss most is his “fire family”.
“Just the camaraderie of the guys here…coming here everyday for 31 years, it’s like one big family,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’ve spent over half of my life here. A third of that has been with my fire family; we eat here, sleep here, work together. We’re seeing people, sometimes, on their worst day; the public expects us to function well. You have to be a close-knit, well functioning team for things to go right.”
Davis’ last day with the department was Jan. 13. He plans to spend his retirement fishing, hunting and traveling with his wife.