March 7—HERMITAGE — When Robert Szabo retired from the Hermitage Volunteer Fire Department late last year, he brought to a close a career spanning nearly 50 years.
And it’s time the 74-year-old said he couldn’t be prouder — of being able to serve with fellow Hermitage firefighters while protecting people in the community.
“We have a great crew here. We really do it,” Szabo said of the fire department.
Szabo’s time with the Hermitage Volunteer Fire Department began in September 1974. Although he did not originally plan to become a volunteer firefighter, Szabo said he was always attracted to the field and was introduced to it by his friend and Hermitage firefighter Ron Speck. .
“There were a few times my wife and I were out driving and we saw fire, so I took it home and came back and watched,” Szabo said.
After joining the department, Szabo said he took in as much training as he could, because of the time investment required to volunteer and the potential hazards involved in fighting fires.
Finally, his duties range from deputy fire chief to driver training officer over the years.
“The more training you have, the calmer and calmer you will be when responding to an emergency, even if you don’t necessarily have all the answers,” says Szabo. “And when other people see someone in control of a situation instead of panicking, that attitude spreads to other people.”
Along with his firefighting training, Szabo was among the students in Mercer County’s first EMT course in 1975, which was held at Sharon General Hospital. Szabo served as EMT until 1981, as the field required repeated training and courses to maintain certification.
However, that training allows Szabo to retain some understanding of medical issues or injuries, which allows him to gauge a person’s condition on the scene until an EMT can arrive or interact with an EMT if needed.
“I can understand some of the terms and language the ambulance crew is using, so I can speed them up when they get to the scene,” said Szabo.
Because the Hermitage Volunteer Fire Department responds to about 800 calls a year, Szabo had the opportunity to see some situations that were unusual for his time.
In one instance, a resident died on the second floor of their home, and firefighters had to break down a wall to get the person out.
During another call in 1994, firefighters responded to a muylti vehicle accident on Interstate 80 in Shenango Township involving a bus of people from the Woodstock ’94 festival.
“We had about 40 people to get off the bus,” said Szabo. “No major deaths or injuries, but a lot of people to take care of.”
There have been many changes, both locally and nationally, regarding fire fighting during Szabo’s tenure.
The Hermitage Volunteer Fire Department usually operated out of the municipal building on North Hermitage Road, and eventually built its main fire station on Highland Road, along with an additional station on Maple Drive.
The equipment has also become more expensive, with oxygen packs and selector kits costing thousands of dollars – though they have helped improve firefighter safety, Szabo said.
“Back when I first started, you had a helmet, a liner for your helmet, a coat and gloves,” says Szabo.
Along with volunteer firefighters, Szabo held a number of jobs over the years, and was last with Solar Atmospheres until his retirement in 2014.
Despite having to juggle full-time work by volunteering at the fire department, Szabo says he usually doesn’t miss big events like birthdays and prioritizes spending time with his family whenever he can.
“Family should always come first,” he said.
Szabo continued his firefighting and was initially considered retiring in 2020, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Szabo says he decided to stay with the department until the crisis subsided.
“I don’t want to retire and leave everyone with everything that’s going on,” Szabo said of the pandemic.
With things back to normal, Szabo finally decided to retire from firefighting last December – giving him time to do other activities like exercise and walking, and spend time with his family.
But as well as keeping busy, Szabo also adapted from his constant state of alert to a more relaxed lifestyle, such as working around the house without his emergency radio always playing in the background.
“When Cathy and I go out to eat, we don’t have to drive two cars anymore, because I don’t have to worry about leaving in the middle of dinner if a call comes in,” says Szabo.
Szabo was recognized for his service during the February meeting of the Hermitage Board of Commissioners, where Hermitage Fire Chief John Flynn spoke about Szabo’s career during a sometimes emotional event. The firefighters also presented his wife Cathy Szabo with a bouquet of flowers.
“You’re part of this too,” Flynn told Cathy. “There are times when you get left behind at a restaurant or a party, or we have to call you and ask you to pick Bob up for us because he’s out for a walk.”
President Commissioner Duane Piccirilli then presented Szabo with a statement from the commissioners, thanking him for his years of service.
“The city is blessed to have Mr Szabo’s support and leadership in our voluntary fire department,” Piccirilli said.
Despite his shunning, Szabo recommends that any young resident interested in firefighting — like he was in ’74 — talk to someone already involved in learning the job, and try it out.
Firefighting can be an “incredibly rewarding” experience, and many young firefighters who are just starting to volunteer are as passionate as those who have served for years, Szabo said.
“If you take someone who’s interested and show them what it’s like, and they start practicing and do it live — they love it,” says Szabo.
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