By Jim Newell
After nearly 31 years with the Orion Township Fire Department, Chief Bob Smith is stepping down, officially retiring on Aug. 2.
Smith decided a few months ago to retire and the township Board of Trustees accepted his retirement resignation in June.
“It’s just time to step down. The time was right. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I don’t want to be the Brett Favre of the fire chiefs. I think I’m going out on a high note and that’s the way I want it,” said Smith, who is 68.
The ever-humble Smith – who did not want an article on his retirement until closer to the date – credits his firefighters and officials for the department’s development over the decades.
“The department is still going to progress, but I’m happy with where it is today. I’m happy that I think I built a good foundation for where we are right now. Someone else can step in and continue to build on what we have,” he said.
“I’m going to miss him as a friend, but also in his role as fire chief,” said Clerk Penny Shults. “He has a heart of compassion. That’s huge.”
Smith has seen the fire department expand from an on-call department to the fulltime department that it is today. The Orion Township Fire Department currently has 22 fulltime firefighters and 23 active paid on-call firefighters.
On Aug. 13, 1986, Smith was a paid on-call firefighter with Orion Township. “At that time, the fire chief was the only fulltime position.”
Then on July 30, 1990, the township board and the fire chief wanted a fire inspector. “And I was lucky enough to get the job on July 30, 1990,” Smith said, who later moved up to assistant fire chief.
On May 3, 2012, Smith took over as interim/acting fire chief, officially becoming the Orion Township fire chief Sept. 20 when the township board approved his appointment.
“Almost immediately we went for a millage increase to be able to hire fulltime positions,” he said.
In January 2014, the department brought on fulltime positions at each fire station, with one firefighter at each of the four stations 24/7 and a shift captain supervising.
The department currently has seven fire engines, four rescue trucks, one tanker truck, one ladder truck and an ambulance used as a rescue vehicle. “But we don’t transport people in that,” Smith said.
Smith said he is proud to be a part of developing the Orion Township Fire Department into a fulltime force with paid on-call firefighters in reserve to address emergency situations.
“Through the good fortune of the community seeing the need for a fulltime fire department we have been able to create that,” Smith said. “This is a big step forward. We just got to the point where we can rely strictly on our paid on-call firefighters.”
“He’s extremely efficient, he’s upgraded our equipment and he’s been efficient with his budget. And promoting from within the department is an excellent benefit to the community because those firefighters know the community,” Shults said. “Within five short years, what Chief Smith has accomplished has been phenomenal. He does represent the township with excellence with whatever he does. When I’ve met with other fire chiefs, he definitely has the respect of his peers.”
In 1986, the department responded to 700 total calls. Now, the department averages eight calls per day, with 2,420 calls in 2016. Smith said the fire department anticipates getting 2,500 calls this year.
“That’s too much for an on-call fire department,” Smith said of the increased volume of calls. My proudest thing is that we were able to bring this department up to where it is today. I’m very proud of our department. They do a great job.”
The department also joined the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) 3201 of North Oakland County. The agreement – with 32 other departments – allows Orion Township to share special technical groups, hazardous materials teams and mutual aid support.
The department switched to the Open Sky Radio System that puts firefighters from different departments and police on the same emergency frequency so they can communicate at an emergency scene.
Previously, under the old BHF Radio System, different departments used different radio frequencies. “Departments coming in (to a fire or emergency) have a common channel,” Smith said.
“Our training – now we have a lot more to offer. We have a very good curriculum for our firefighters.”
The firefighters train every shift, whether through studying manuals and procedures, or practicing drills and techniques. “We also have regular monthly training as a department. Search and rescue, ventilation drills, hose lay practices, things of that nature,” Smith said.
Last month, the fire department had a Flash Over training trailer, where firefighters are in an enclosed training box car filled with smoke to simulate entering a house teeming with smoke.
“It’s very invaluable training for our firefighters,” Smith said.
By having staff in the fire stations, firefighters can get to the trucks and respond to emergencies sooner. “Normally, we have a vehicle on the road in 90 seconds, which really cuts down on things getting worse. It used to be that the on-call guys would have to drive to the stations to get the (fire) trucks and then drive to a fire.”
Some of the standout situations in which Smith has been involved include the Sagebrush Cantina Fire eleven years ago. “That’s a big event that we were involved in, just because we were concerned about the whole block going up (in flames).”
Smith also remembers delivery a baby. The expectant mother was home and called for help and delivered at home in the living room on the couch.
He started with the Novi Ambulance Service in the late 1970s. Before that, Smith drove a concrete truck for Clawson, and was a paid on-call firefighter for Northville in the ‘70s.
Smith smiles when he recollects the positions he’s held. “I’ve had a colorful career.”