Thursday, April 10, 2008

City battalion chief retires after 34 years


After 34 years of service that ultimately made him the face of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, John Ahlman is hanging up his battalion chief helmet for good.
From his first day back in January 1974 — through countless wildland and house fires, serving as the department spokesman, and his promotion to battalion chief — he couldn’t have been happier.

“Never a day I didn’t enjoy coming to work,” Ahlman said. “In a nutshell, it’s been a great ride.”
The 61-year-old lived and worked through the Sycamore Canyon Fire, the Romero Fire, the Painted Cave Fire, and most recently the Zaca Fire. He’s seen hazardous material spills on the highway so huge they became statewide news. And he’s seen a lot of change.
When he joined the department, coming to Santa Barbara after several years in Montecito, the fire trucks all had open cabs.
“When we had inclement weather or even a brush fire, we didn’t have any protection from the elements,” he said.
In a rainstorm, the cab would fill up so much on the ride to an incident that he had to open the doors to let the water out by the time they arrived.
“I thought that’s what firefighters do,” he said. “They get wet and miserable and fight fires.”
Now, he said, firefighters have a completely different life, with closed cabs, high-tech equipment, and a lot more safety regulations.
“These days, things are a little bit more complicated,” Ahlman said. “We shot from the hip a lot. We did things we wouldn’t be able to get away with now.”
He’s not the only holdout from that earlier era. He rattled off a list, likely nowhere near complete, of his fire buddies — Don Levasheff, Steve Felix, Bill Taft and Pat McElroy.
“We all grew up together on the job,” Ahlman said. “…The most memorable thing outside of fire calls is the fact that we work so well together. And we came on the job before a lot of these new folks were born.”
Retirement plans have been a topic of discussion in the Ahlman home for a while now. He told his wife Barbara about eight years ago in January that he’d be retiring in July of that year.
“She said she needed more leeway, more time,” Ahlman said. “So I gave her eight years.”
The couple relaxed at fire headquarters on Thursday, enjoying an ice cream social and plenty of reminiscing with friends. As per tradition, fire officials paid Ahlman tribute over their emergency radios.
“John, we thank you for your contributions and your years of service to the Santa Barbara City Fire Department,” said Deputy Fire Chief Mitch Vaughn.
Dozens of firefighters followed Vaughn’s remarks with their own congratulations and thanks, calling Ahlman a “source of inspiration” and a “good friend.” Mayor Marty Blum also commended Ahlman for his years of service.
“John has represented the city very well,” she said. “He was the face of the fire department for years and he did a great job. … We will miss him.”
So what is Ahlman going to do with his free time now that he has plenty? Nothing too glamorous.
“I’m going to paint the ceiling in my living room,” he said.
He’ll also spend some time traveling and visiting family, including his family at the fire department. He’s already turned in his part-time application and plans to stick around and volunteer when needed.
“You kind of go off a little bit at a time,” he said. “When you leave with institutional knowledge like that, you have quite a bit to offer.”
He has, after all, 34 years of memories to fall back on.
“It’s been a fabulous job,” he said. “I remark all the time about how enjoyable it’s been. You feel like you’ve made a difference in the community.”

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