Being a firefighter was in Michael VanZile’s blood. For as long as he can remember, he wanted to be a volunteer firefighter in his hometown, just like his father.
“My heroes growing up were the guys in the local fire department,” he recalls. They were bigger than life to me. I admired the way they served. They had to leave ballgames, miss dinners and go out in the middle of the night to make calls, but they did it because they believed in what they were doing.”
After high school, at 19 years old, VanZile began working alongside many of his childhood heroes. For 10 years, he was an auto mechanic, while also serving as a volunteer firefighter with the Butler Fire Department.
But in 1993, he got an itch to do firefighting for a living. He joined the Auburn Fire Department as a driver, and he’s been with the AFD ever since. He was promoted to lieutenant, captain, and in 2005, chief.
He’s seen many changes during his 24-year tenure. In 1993, the AFD only had a handful of career firefighters. Today, the AFD—which has both an east and west fire station—is comprised of 20 full-time and eight part-time firefighters. Additionally, the stations are supported by eight volunteer firefighters.
On an annual basis, the AFD responds to more than 900 calls, averaging two to three calls per day. Only 10-12 percent of the calls are fire-related. Another 46 percent are medical-related—all career firefighters are also EMTs—and the remaining 42-44 percent are service calls, such as industrial or agricultural rescues, confined space rescues, or hazardous material spills.
To be able to respond to such a variety of issues, the AFD trains on a weekly basis. The training includes everything from the basics of hoses, ladders and ropes, to the more unique scenarios, like hazmat training and grain bin rescues. Since they are EMTs as well, there are also monthly medical in-services on skills like controlling bleeding or fixing a broken bone.
“We understand that when we’re interacting with someone, it’s often because they’re having a bad day,” Chief VanZile says. “We often see people at their worst and when they call 911, they expect us to be able to respond and help them. We want to always be ready for every situation.”
The AFD also donates dozens of hours of community education each year. They have established programs for pre-school through fifth grade students. Additionally, Chief VanZile provides education to senior citizens about things like fire extinguisher use and cooking safety (kitchen fires are the no. 1 cause of house fires).
Whether the AFD is responding to a house fire, a medical call or a hazardous spill, they approach it the same every time: with a devotion to the community.
“It’s a privilege to work here in Auburn,” Chief VanZile says. “It’s a great community and all of us are here because we have a calling to help others.”