Dan Smith Serving His Final Year as Local Fire Chief
When Dan Smith was growing up, he watched his dad serve as a volunteer firefighter. Though he found the job admirable, Smith never really considered following in his father’s footsteps. In 1980 he chose to open a landscaping business called Smith Lawns and Landscapes. One day, however, fate intervened, causing the trajectory of Smith’s life to shift. He was with his friend Steve Matthews, owner of Matthews Mortuary, when an ambulance run came in. At the time the mortuary ran the ambulance service for Lizton, Pittsboro and Avon.
“There was a bad accident north of town and Steve asked if I wanted to ride along,” Smith says. “I agreed and found that I really enjoyed it, so Steve paid for me to go to EMT school.”
In 1985, about four years after attending emergency medical technician school, Smith began working as a volunteer firefighter for Brownsburg.
“I lived a block and a half from the fire station,” Smith says. “That was back in the day when they set the siren off to let people know when there was a run. Being so close, I was the first to the station for every run.”
He worked as a firefighter, 24 hours on duty followed by 48 hours off duty, and landscaped on his days off. Though he enjoyed the work, his landscaping business suffered because he was spending so much time making volunteer runs. When Brownsburg began changing from a volunteer to a combination fire department, Smith was grateful to be one of the first career firefighters hired.
“I liked feeling like I had a positive impact on someone who was having a bad day,” says Smith, who stayed at Brownsburg for nine years before moving to the Washington Township/Avon Fire Department in 1996.
Smith acted as fire chief from 2002 until 2005, at which time he returned to working on the fire truck. Eleven years ago, however, his boss Don Hodson asked him to fill the chief position again, and he’s been acting in that role ever since.
Smith maintains that the fire department is a vocation that’s deeply entrenched in tradition.
“It started out strictly as an organization that provides a service to insurance companies to put out fires,” he says. “Now we are an all-hazards organization. The old adage, ‘When people don’t know who else to call, they call the fire department,’ rings true.”
This is why the department has become increasingly geared toward emergency medical service (EMS) duties. Smith estimates that between 80 and 85% of the department’s runs are EMS runs. In recent years their run load has increased substantially. Prior to three years ago, they saw a 3 to 4% increase from the previous year. Last year they saw a 10 to 12% increase. This year they are close to a 20 to 25% increase in run loads.
“Geographically we’re right in the center of the county,” Smith says. “Consequently, we make a lot more EMS runs to surrounding departments.”
This is partly why a new fire station is being built on County Road 900 East that’s slated for completion in March of 2022.
“We built it because of the increased population growth that we have experienced in that area, in addition to the need to reduce response times,” Smith says.
The department takes care of everything from cardiac arrest patients and mothers in labor to individuals struggling with behavioral health issues.
“I’ve been on runs where patients didn’t need to go to the hospital, but they did need somebody to talk to or pay attention to them,” Smith says. “With behavioral health being what it is, a lot more of what we do revolves around that. Every day our department looks for ways that we can be more effective at meeting all the needs of our community, because it’s not just about putting out a fire.”
For instance, during the pandemic the department partnered with the county and the state board of health to help with a program called Homebound Hoosier, for which they took vaccines to the homes of seniors who didn’t have transportation to get to a vaccine clinic.
Smith, who has now worked in the firefighting industry for a total of 40 years, will retire in December of 2022. Though he welcomes some free time, there are certainly things he’ll miss – namely, helping people on a daily basis.
“To be able to tangibly see the difference you’re making in someone’s life by what you’re doing has had a huge impact,” Smith says.
He’ll also miss the relationships he’s built with the guys on his shift.
“When you work shifts that are 24/48 hours, these people become your family away from family,” Smith says.
In addition, he’ll miss the people who work for the township, as well as all of the wonderful community partners he’s befriended in local schools and businesses. In his retirement, Smith plans to spend more time on his 60-acre cattle ranch. He and his wife Shelly also own property in northern Indiana so they’ll make more trips up there.
“Taking care of those two places should keep me busy, though I’ve also kicked around the idea of getting back into landscaping work,” Smith says.
His wife works with Hearts for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that clothes and feeds the homeless, and he assists with that too.
“They use firewood in the wintertime to help keep warm, so I split a lot of firewood in my free time,” Smith says.
While many first responders thrive on the adrenaline rush of the job, he relishes the notion of having some freedom to set his own schedule.
“It sounds nice to not have to work evenings and weekends all the time because when you’re on a 24-hour shift, especially early in your career, your family pays the price,” Smith says. “You’re not around for Christmases and birthdays. My family understood that sacrifice, but once I retire I look forward to spending more time with my kids and grandkids and just enjoying life a little more.”
Smith is quick to acknowledge that the success of his career is due to his colleagues.
“Our people are what make our department what it is,” he says. “I don’t think they get enough recognition for the things they do. It’s easy to look at the fire chief as an elevated position, but I see myself as a tool. My job is to make sure my people have the resources they need to do their job.”
He’s grateful to Hodson and the board members he has worked with during his tenure, all of whom have been supportive of the programs the department has implemented.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of our community,” he says.