Fire Chief Colin Altman to retire after 29 years
- Published: August 3, 2023
Chief Colin Altman is hanging up his turnout coat for good.
After 29 years at the helm of Miami Township Fire-Rescue, Altman retires later this month.
During his tenure, Altman oversaw the transformation of the local department from a nearly all-volunteer force to one with 22 paid staff; managed a significant increase in calls for service; and orchestrated the move to a much larger and better equipped fire station.
“They always say to leave a place better than when you found it,” he reflected in a recent interview with the News. “The future’s bright for the department.”
Altman, 54, also took on statewide leadership positions in his field, ultimately becoming president of the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association. At that professional organization he spearheaded a Diversity Task Force, which has since become the standing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
But for Altman, the greatest accomplishment has been serving his community and supporting his firefighters. He said that while he at one time thought about leaving, he is glad to have spent his entire professional career in Miami Township, in the place he called home.
“What I liked about being here is you can see the difference you make in the community you treat and the people you work with. I like that aspect,” he said.
A celebration of Altman’s service will be Friday, Aug. 11, at 5 p.m., at the Miami Township Fire-Rescue station, 101 E. Herman Street. All community members are invited; ice cream and cake will be served.
Altman was no stranger to small towns when he came to Yellow Springs to attend Antioch College in the late 1980s. He grew up in the village of Roosevelt — population around 800 — in central New Jersey. The town had an all-volunteer fire and police department, and as a young child, Altman thought it would be “a fun thing to do.”
“I liked the idea of helping people and serving the community,” he said.
Altman, however, set his sights on becoming a physician, and applied to Antioch and a smattering of other small liberal arts schools around the country. When he got in, he enrolled sight unseen.
Soon after arriving on campus, Altman learned that the college had its own fire department and quickly got involved. He saw it as a chance to explore an early interest, to get his own room in the department’s designated dorm, Maples, and to get college credit to take EMT classes.
One feature of the Antioch College Fire Department, often called the only student-run volunteer fire department in the nation, was its arrangement to share calls with Miami Township’s fire department, which was largely volunteer at the time. Altman’s life changed one night on such a call to a Cedarville fire.
“I thought I would just drive the truck, but I found myself inside on a hose line,” Altman recalled. “Someone yelled, ‘heads up!’ and the ceiling landed on top of us. I was trapped for 30 seconds.”
Except for a bruised shoulder, Altman walked away unscathed. But he had found his calling.
“I was sold,” he said. “It was the excitement, the challenge, and doing something that other people don’t do.”
Between co-ops in the field of psychology, Altman continued to serve on the Antioch Fire Department, taking calls on campus and in the community. At Antioch, which he recalled had 600 to 700 students at the time, he responded to everything from alcohol intoxication and overdoses to small fires caused by students burning candles and incense in their dorms.
“The biggest problem was it was a lot more fun to do than school,” Altman said.
And while he enjoyed his co-ops — at a child treatment center outside of Boston, for one — he wasn’t able to maintain the coursework for a psychology degree. He ultimately left Antioch when he got the job as chief following the retirement of Miami Township Fire Chief Ed Williamson. He was just 25 years old.
When Altman took over Miami Township Fire-Rescue, or MTFR, in 1994, it had just two paid positions and more than 40 volunteers. But that wasn’t enough to meet the needs of the community.
“When I got there, volunteers had plummeted. If you called 911 at night, there was a chance no one would come,” Altman recalled.
Altman went on to grow the volunteer ranks to a peak of 60 in the late 1990s, before a variety of local and national changes took their toll. Among them were the enrollment decline and subsequent closure of Antioch, as well as the growing prevalence of dual-income families and the increase in training requirements for volunteers, he explained.
Despite having more paid staff today — 22, plus six volunteers — Altman’s attitude toward his team hasn’t changed.
“We’re all professionals, whether you’re paid or not,” he said.
Working to better the lives of his staff and volunteers has been a highlight of Altman’s time at MTFR, he said, while their well-being has always been of the utmost importance.
“Your biggest priorities are your mission and your guys,” he said. “Safety is also making sure you go home intact.”
The work, however, takes its toll. For one, the work of the chief is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Altman, who needed to be accessible via pager and later, by cellphone, and was often called into work in the middle of the night. Other nights, he would stay up worrying about his crew.
“When you’re a chief, especially in a small town, it takes your time,” he said.
Serious personal trauma from the job can also occur when dealing with life-threatening medical emergencies or when the first responders are themselves put in harm’s way.
For instance, some years ago, when responding to a fire at a church in Clifton, one of MTFR’s ambulances was involved in a head-on collision, with serious injuries sustained. Two of the three EMS personnel got out and treated the person who hit them, then fought the fire until 2 a.m., Altman recalled.
“People don’t understand how challenging it is. As a fire service, we have a high suicide rate and high divorce rate,” he said. “People don’t see how dangerous it can be.”
One positive change during Altman’s tenure as chief has been a societal realization of trauma and the need to deal with it, along with a greater focus on mental health as an aspect of occupational health for first responders.
“With trauma, at first we just laughed it off,” he said. “Now there is counseling, peer support, and a lot more emphasis on talking about what’s happened.”
“We realized it’s our job not to just give you the best gear, but the support you need when you go home,” he added. “That’s one of the greatest transformations I’ve seen.”
Over the years the calls increased, and changed. Situated in a firehouse built to handle 200 calls per year, the department was fielding more than 1,200 calls. Altman advocated for new facilities, and in 2017, voters passed a levy to raise $5.75 million to build a new firehouse. In 2022, a $670,000-per year staffing levy was passed in support of the department.
Today, MTFR’s medical calls outpace other emergencies, largely due to the aging of the community. The average patient age is now 56, much higher than the surrounding area, according to Altman.
Mental health issues are also on the rise, and are particularly prominent in Yellow Springs, Altman believes. And because of a lack of hospital beds for mental health patients, the squad deals with them more frequently here.
“Because of Yellow Springs’ open and accepting nature, we as a town attract people with mental health issues, and we [at MTFR] see them a lot,” Altman said.
Altman’s approach to the challenging work has been to bring a little levity and humor during stressful times. For instance, when COVID-19 was spreading and villagers were fearful, he added some light-hearted jokes to the regular virtual town hall meetings hosted by the Village.
“I always felt that humor helps us deal with things, so I tried to mix a real message in with humor,” he said.
Aside from COVID, the job has involved responding to typical emergencies, from the stereotypical “cat stuck in a tree” to serious car accidents.
“It’s everything from fun, silly things to times when you really make a difference,” Altman said.
One memorable incident took place when a “poor, wet dog” was trapped on a rock outcropping deep in the Clifton Gorge, Altman remembered. An MTFR responder had to repel down through the narrow chasm and float the dog down the river. The department paid for the abandoned dog’s vet bill, and one staffer eventually adopted him, naming him Barry, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama.
On the more challenging end of the spectrum were incidents involving harm to children, including many car accidents. At one point, Altman recalls, the intersection of Grinnell Road and Clifton Road in the township was statistically the most dangerous intersection in the state in terms of traffic fatalities.
In addition to service through the job, Altman sought opportunities to make an impact in other ways. For instance, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Altman wanted to find a way to honor the 343 firefighters who died. Modeled after a similar event in Indiana, he organized the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, first at Antioch College, and now at University of Dayton. The event has raised more than $160,000 for the National Fallen Firefighters Association in its nine years.
Altman also rose to become president of the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association, work that has involved extensive lobbying in Washington D.C. He is the first gay chief to have held that position. A trailblazer interested in opening the door for others, Altman is proud that his department has always been open and accepting of those of different identities.
“One thing we’ve always had here is you can be yourself,” he said. “That’s not the case with other departments.”
Altman is also the co-chair of the Greater Cincinnati Human Rights Campaign, which is part of America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ equality. Looking ahead, he hopes to get more involved in this organization, and may look for foundation or nonprofit work in his next career.
“I’m young enough to do something else,” he said.
Anticipating his next chapter, Altman has moved to Dayton with his husband, Treavor Begard, a University of Dayton assistant professor. He leaves the department to an interim chief, Denny Powell, who has been with MTFR since 2004. After six months, the Township Trustees will ultimately make the call on who will be the next MTFR chief.
As for Yellow Springs, Altman will miss the place, and the people.
“This place reflected my personal values,” he said. “There are things that drove me nuts, but this place has been my home.”
“It’s a true sense of community,” he added. “For this part of the country, this is a unique community with unique people and unique histories.”
*Bachman is a former editor of the News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.