Sawlsville reflects on 40-year career

Rochelle fire chief continuing to protect the community

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ROCHELLE – Rochelle Fire Department Chief Dave Sawlsville recently looked back on his 40 years protecting the community and what has changed during his career.

For Sawlsville, becoming a firefighter was not something he knew he wanted to do from a young age or even something that he pursued. Rather, it something that found him. It was June 1980 and Sawlsville was working at the old Coast-to-Coast Hardware Store in Rochelle.

One day, one of his regular customers came into the store and mentioned that the fire department was looking for volunteer firefighters. Sawlsville applied right when he finished work that day, and he was hired the next month, working as a paid on-call volunteer for seven years before being hired on as a full-time firefighter on Aug. 10, 1987.

“Right when I started, it absolutely clicked with me on lots of different levels,” Sawlsville said. “It may sound corny, but the main thing was giving back to the community. And then the really close comradery down here at the station, it’s almost like a second family, as well as all the opportunities to go in any direction of the field. We are an all hazard fire department, meaning we go to fires and offer EMS, but along with that, we offer all types of rescue services from auto extraction, divers, Hazmat technicians and even SWAT medics.”

The routine shift as a full-time firefighter is working 24 hours straight and then having 48 hours off, causing many firefighters to work a second part-time job. While many of the other firefighters worked second jobs as carpenters or truck drivers, Sawlsville always worked jobs that remained within the fire safety realm.

Whenever he was off duty, Sawlsville worked for 15 years teaching paramedic classes for the Rockford Memorial Hospital Trauma Center and Kishwaukee College. He then worked another 10 years as a flight medic for St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford.

"I wanted a part-time job that would enhance my full-time job,” Sawlsville said. “As a paramedic instructor, that makes your paramedic skills better and as a flight medic that also makes your paramedic skills better.”

Over the years, Sawlsville continued working his way up the ranks, earning a promotion to lieutenant in January 2002, becoming the interim fire chief on Sept. 24, 2015 and becoming the full-time fire chief on Jan. 21, 2016. During his 40-year career with the Rochelle Fire Department, many things have changed in the way that fire protection and EMS is conducted.

When Sawlsville first started, it was before the discovery of HIV/AIDS, so paramedics did not wear gloves when they arrived on scene to help a patient. Now, before they step foot outside of the ambulance, they are gloved up and, with the recent pandemic, also wearing masks.

The materials used for buildings have also changed. Houses once built with 2-by-4 boards and natural materials like wool and cotton are now built using vinyl, polyester and many petroleum based products which can be absorbed through the skin, causing firefighters to leave equipment inside the garage of the station and shower immediately when they return.

These new materials burn much quicker and hotter than before, causing firefighters to make quicker decisions and use extra protection and caution when entering a building. All firefighters now use a breathing apparatus anytime they enter a burning building to protect from cancer causing carcinogens.

“We weren’t that concerned about using a breathing apparatus previously, so it was pretty common to see firefighters enter a building dragging a hose, but not using a breathing apparatus,” Sawlsville said. “In the 1980s, we had a lot of fires, but it was mostly natural materials on fire, so it was less of a health risk and the fires had lower burning temperatures. A house fire back in the 1980s would see ceiling temperatures between 600 and 800 degrees. Now we are seeing temperatures of 1,400 to 1,500 degrees.”

While these changes have increased the level of risk when arriving on scene, there have also been many advancements in technology. The department is much more equipped and prepared to serve the community under any circumstances than it was when Sawlsville started.

“It is forever changing, not only just in the fire service, but also in EMS,” Sawlsville said. “The things that we do now on an ambulance compared to even just 15 years ago are crazy. When I first started here, we were a basic ambulance, but we are now an advanced life support at paramedic level. We have all different types of equipment, and the types of medications we carry for different situations has tripled.”

Although Sawlsville has been at the department for 40 years, he says that he cannot believe how fast the years went by. He still remembers his first day walking in as a paid on-call volunteer and his first day as a brand-new full-timer, but looking back, he could not imagine doing anything else. While many things have changed during his career, one thing that has remained the same is how he approaches every situation with the same amount of compassion.

“I always tried to keep in my head that these are my neighbors,” Sawlsville said. “When someone calls 911, we are going to encounter them on what is probably the worst day of their life, and you can’t bring enough empathy and compassion to that situation. To this day, people come up to me and say, ‘you don’t remember me, but I remember you, you took such good care of my mom or brought in a sense of calm to the situation.’ And it doesn’t get any better than that.”

While retirement may be in the not-so-distant future for Sawlsville, there are a few things happening at the department that he would like to see through before thinking about retirement. A new $600,000 fire engine that the department will be receiving is being constructed in Iowa, and the department will also be going out for bids on a new $200,000 ambulance.

The fire department also received $170,000 in grant funds from FEMA to purchase new breathing apparatuses. With everything going on at the department, and Sawlsville still learning new things every day, he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime too soon. 

"We have about $1 million in capital projects going on right now, so now would not be a good time to leave,” Sawlsville said. “I love what I do and I still have enthusiasm and look forward to coming in every day. No two days are ever the same.”