Michael Taylor looks back on career with city fire department

THREE CREW — Assistant Fire Chief Michael Taylor, who is retiring at the end of the month, served his more than 30-year career with the Steubenville Fire Department with Three Crew at the North Street headquarters station. One of the iterations of the crew included, from left, Steve Sluzynsky, Terry Thompson, Gray Nagy, Dave Coldonato, Dr. David Sullivan and Taylor. -- Contributed

STEUBENVILLE — When Assistant Fire Chief Michael Taylor looks back on his 31 years in the Steubenville Fire Department, his ever-present smile gets a little wider.

And, when he retires from the department at the end of the month, it’s with satisfaction that he chose the right career, worked with a great group of people and will continue on as president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters.

The 1979 Steubenville High School graduate said, “I will seek re-election, but I do have a definitive timeline in mind. I don’t want to be 70 and still doing this, but I’d like to stick around for a couple of more terms if the members will keep me.”

Taylor remembers his first call, to a car fire on Reynolds Street, a small street off Ross Street. He remembers big calls, like the Creegan Co. fire on a bitterly cold night in December 2013. He talks a lot about the impact other firefighters had on his career and his life and the process of one generation of firefighters mentoring the next generation as part of what sets the fire service apart from other careers.

Taylor, who was the sound man for U.S. Kids when he was younger, joked that being a firefighter is kind of like being in a band — “You hang out with a bunch of guys, get scared once in awhile, and you work as a team.”

But then, the professional firefighter kicked in as he continued the answer.

“The fire service is different than any other job because it is a crew-based job. A police officer, if they’re lucky, works with a partner. We work as a team or with a crew. You live and work together for 24 hours. It’s very unique, and mentoring is the key to a successful fire department,” he said.

Taylor was in his early 20s when he passed his fire service test. His father, Tom, was a police officer with the Steubenville Police Department for decades.

“When I retire, there will have been about a 53-year run of my dad and me in public service for the city of Steubenville,” Taylor said.

He had worked at the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. coke plant for awhile out of high school and got laid off. He said he began to develop his views of labor-management relations from that experience.

“If you look at history, the pendulum was either all the way to the management side or all the way to the labor side. There never was this cohesive effort to make the business a success. It was always what could each other get out of the process. That had an effect on me,” Taylor recalled.

Elected president of Local 228 of the International Association of Fire Fighters early in his career, he recalled having mentors who told him to serve in the union and the late Denny Speer, who had been secretary-treasurer of the Steubenville firefighters local, introduced him to state-level officials who later influenced Taylor’s career in the state union — Rocky Russo of Youngstown and Joe Carbini of Canton, both of whom supported him when he became vice president of the state union.

It’s all part of the mentoring that Taylor says is crucial to a successful fire department.

He recalls his mentors included David Zapolnik, former chiefs Ric Blair and John Mencer, and the late Kevin Bahen among others. Zapolnik, he noted, became his best friend and is his daughter’s godfather.

Taylor’s career has been a little unusual in that he’s been part of Three Crew from the North Street headquarters station the entire time, with firefighters, including Zapolnik, Matt Ulasiewicz, Dave “Doc” Sullivan and the late Gray Nagy, who died last summer less than a month after retiring with 32 years on the department. He said the veteran firefighters mentor the younger firefighters not just to teach them but to make them part of a team that has one another’s backs in a dangerous profession.

“If you wanted to pay attention, you could be successful at the job. I will tell you if you give me somebody with a good work ethic and a lot of common sense, they’ll make a good firefighter,” Taylor said. “There might be a period of time in the beginning where you might not feel you’ve been accepted, but the people need to know they can trust you with their lives. It’s an interesting dynamic that’s not for everybody. But if you like to work in a group, if you like to help people, if you like to have some feeling of worth for what you do in your life’s work, it’s a beautiful profession.”

Working with the same crew could have led to difficulties as Taylor rose in the command ranks, but he said the crew was great.

“I told them I know you see me do what I do, and I was terrible about safety stuff. I was always the guy who hated to wear gloves or gear or put his helmet on, but I said that I am in a different position now, and I’m responsible for making sure you guys are safe and for doing things you probably have seen me not do. I ask you guys to tolerate it because there is not going to be much latitude,” he said.

“We had a conversation about two years ago about wearing their breathing apparatus during overhauls (after fires, checking for hot spots), but as I progressed in my union career, one of the things I speak about all over the state is the need to protect ourselves from cancer-causing agents. I told them I can’t run all over the state preaching about this and not practice it. And they were OK.”

Taylor remembers a call to St. Peter’s Church a few years ago as one of the biggest saves of his career.

“We were called down there and there definitely was a haze of smoke in the basement. There was an older man down there who I believe called us. I thought he was the nighttime janitor. Being good Catholics, everything in the basement was locked up, but I told the guy I have to get into these rooms to see what was going on. He was not really responding to my wishes, and the smoke was getting worse.

“All I kept thinking is this church is going to burn down, and we’re going to be on CNN and I’m going to be responsible for losing St. Peter’s Church. I told the guy if he doesn’t get the keys, I’m going to start taking the doors down. And, all I can get in my head is (former firefighter) Dave DeChristopher, who did a lot of work in that church, and I can hear him saying, ‘Don’t you tear up my church, Mike!'”

Eventually the fire department was able to get into the kitchen area, and when firefighters moved a big freezer, they saw flames shooting out of its wall plug.

“Five more minutes, and the place would have been gone. I’ve always been very grateful for that. Doc, Gray, Matt, all of them did a great job. And, I came to find out the old guy I was yelling at was just there for the 24-hour adoration chapel. If he’s not there — he’s actually responsible for saving that church. I apologized later to Father (Timothy) Huffman, and he didn’t even hear everything I said, but that was a good save.”

Taylor says working with that same group of guys for decades meant they automatically knew what each other would do at a scene.

“My direction then turns to the strategic part of putting the fire out and making sure everybody is safe. That comes over time, getting familiar with each other. That is one thing I think the politicians don’t understand. It is a big deal, that ability to work as a unit. It makes the difference between success and failure,” he said.

The Steubenville Fire Department will mark 100 years as an International Association of Fire Fighters organized department this year. The IAFF organized in February 1918, and Steubenville joined in September with a paid professional department that had been around since 1898.

He said he’s proud to have been part of making sure the Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act became law and wasn’t gutted. The law allows firefighters diagnosed with cancer who meet qualifications to file for workers’ compensation. Cancer rates are higher for firefighters, who are exposed to a wide range of chemicals as they fight fires and from soot that comes into contact with their skin. Steubenville recently earned a grant for new protective fire hoods that buffer against soot hitting a firefighter’s skin.

Taylor credited fire Chief Carlo Capaldi for being active in seeking grants to keep Steubenville’s firefighters properly equipped even in a cash-tight city.

“Carlo and I came through the ranks together and worked really well together. He’s responsible for well over $2 million in grant money. Carlo is very articulate, well read and educated. He puts the grants together, and I politic for them and it’s worked out to be a pretty good partnership,” Taylor said. He noted how grants during his career helped buy fire trucks and made Steubenville one of the first stations with diesel exhaust systems in firehouses. The department is seeking a grant to put in the next generation of those systems now.

Taylor says his challenge as state president is to change firefighter culture.

“We need to make guys understand that you wear protective gear, you take precautions, you shower as soon as the fire is over, that there are decontamination kits on the scene, and you wipe down. Our cancer rates are so much higher than the general public, and we’ve been on a pretty serious public relations campaign with our membership,” Taylor said. “I think they get it. When I came on the job, I rode on the back of a truck, nobody wore SCBAs (air tanks and masks), everybody smoked, and nobody wore seatbelts. We have changed all of that.

Taylor said other successful programs at the state level include a fire operations drill annually for government and media to participate in live fires, extrications and medical calls and a peer-to-peer counseling effort. Some 30 members around the state have been trained to act as counselors after loss of life in the line of duty or other tragic events.

“I think our members respond better to their peers than they do to whitecoats. It’s been a pretty successful endeavor for us so far, and I’m pretty proud of that,” he said.

Further, Taylor said he still wants to get more diversity in the fire service. “We need to do a better job of promoting our profession. We need to get into the junior high schools and start promoting that it’s a great job. I think a lot of kids, especially in urban areas, don’t understand. We can give them a better option than selling drugs or doing something wrong,” he said.

Taylor was thinking at age 23 of moving to Florida, but he took the fire test his father, the police officer, wanted him to take.

“I decided I wanted to stay here and raise my kids in Steubenville. It worked out. I was hired in 1987. I have no regrets. The fire job has been a big change in my life.

“All I wanted in my life was a job that if I worked hard, I would get an equal return, and, quite honestly, I’ve gotten way more than that in the fire service.”