PAW PAW, Mich. – For more than 140 years, firefighters with the Paw Paw Fire Department have dedicated their lives to protecting their community.
They spend every second of the day attached to a radio. It’s a career where vacations rarely exist and when the call for help sounds, family dinners get cut short.
But, for most firefighters at the department, it’s a calling that’s in their bloodline.
“My father’s been with the department since the 70’s,” Chief Jim DeGroff said. “As a kid at night he’d leave for a fire and id sneak out of bed and listen to his radio until my mom would catch me and I’d go back to bed.”
From child to chief, Jim DeGroff followed his father’s path and has served 26 years with the department. For six of those, he had to make a big commitment while moving through the chief ranks.
“When you take the commitment on to be the chief it’s a 30 to 40 hour a week job on top of the jobs that we already have,” DeGroff said.
Those extra hours served are without pay. In fact, all 40 firefighters with the department are volunteer, regardless of their rank.
“That’s the big thing about this department, nobody gets paid, not even the chiefs,” Second assistant Fire Chief, Sam Carlsen said. You’ll hear comments all the time people asking ‘oh how can you do that without getting paid,’ and the simple answer is you grew up with it…it’s all you know.”
Much like DeGroff, Carlsen grew up with a father who served and still serves on the PPFD. Carlsen is also going through the chief ranks.
“In my opinion, family comes first,” Carlsen said. “This is a hobby. I have my other job that’s just as important, but family comes first. If it wasn’t something that my family wouldn’t have agreed with, mentioning my wife and not so much my kids, but I probably wouldn’t have done it because you really need that backbone and support to be in that chief position because you’re not going to be home.”
But, for the men serving on this historic department, from the firefighters who started it all, current and past chiefs, to those who continue to carry on the legacy, there’s an unbreakable bond.
“Chips are down…these guys are going to have your back no matter what,” DeGroff said. “If something bad happens to you and your family, or that fire whistle blows, [it] becomes a whole new game and everyone supports each other.”
DeGroff will pass on the honor of being chief in October where he’ll go back to battling fires with his team and his father.