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Fairbanks Fire Chief Warren Cummings reflects on 40 years on the job

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Posted: Monday, May 7, 2012 12:18 am

FAIRBANKS — It’s often said that firefighting attracts a certain type of personality, and it’s true that the profession has more than it’s fair share of danger-loving adrenaline junkies with a devil-may-care attitude.

Warren Cummings — a calm and laconic man who seems to approach life with a measured, natural dignity — may not quite fit that profile, but it hasn’t stopped him from having a long and successful career with the Fairbanks Fire Department.

He recently celebrated his 40th year with the department, and has served as the fire chief for the past 19 years.

Sitting in his firefighter memorabilia-filled office on the third floor of fire station headquarters, Cummings spoke about his life and career.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Cummings was born in the small mining town of Wheelwright, Ky., but his father’s job with Inland Steel caused the family to move to northwestern Ontario, Canada, when Cummings was 10 years old.

Cummings still retained his U.S. citizenship, though, and the U.S. military came looking for him in 1969.

“I was drafted out of Canada into the U.S. Army,” Cummings said, laughing at the irony. “It’s kind of a different scenario — most people were running to Canada and I actually got drafted out of it.”

As luck would have it, Cummings and one other man in his training group were sent to Fort Wainwright instead of Vietnam with the other 32 men in the unit. After two years as a radio operator here, 23-year-old Cummings was getting out of the Army and needed a job.

“The mine where I used to work back home was laying people off. They had training programs (on post) at the time and one of the programs involved firefighting.”

“I said I was going to check downtown and see if they had anything, and when I checked, Chief Cobin — the chief at the time — said ‘if you go to this firefighting school in Anchorage for six to nine months we’ll hire you as long as you finish the school.’ So I went to learn how to be a firefighter at the community college there and they hired me,” Cummings said. “It just was a career opportunity and I got into it and came to love it.”

Changing times

Firefighting has come a long way since the 1970s, according to Cummings.

“It’s more safety conscious, though it’s still got a ways to go. When I started out, breathing apparatus were kind of optional, we rode on the tailboards of the truck, and I don’t even think we had seatbelts in the fire trucks at that time. All those things have changed since then,” Cummings said.

Cummings said he’d still like to see more emphasis on self-contained breathing apparatus and hopes the Fairbanks City Council will approve the department’s use of a $300,000 state grant to purchase 45 new units as well as extra masks.

“We originally bought them in ‘97 and we upgraded them in 2002, so they were getting worn out. They’re about the biggest piece of safety equipment that they wear, other than turn-out gear,” Cummings said.

Another change — and not for the better — since his early firefighting days has been brought about by new, lightweight construction methods.

“It’s really made it a lot more dangerous. We’re seeing a lot more floor collapses, a lot more roof collapses, just because of the type of construction. It doesn’t hold up to fire — the fire gets to it, it’s pretty much gone,” Cummings said. “If the fire gets out of the main house — say you have a bedroom fire — and it gets out through the window and the flames come up, and because of the venting they do in the attics it’s not fire stopped, so the flame gets into the attic. Once it gets into the attic you’ve pretty much lost the roof, because of the lightweight construction.”

The fact that almost everything in modern houses — from the construction materials to the furniture to the flooring — contains toxic and volatile chemicals has also changed the nature of fires.

“A fire that may have taken 12 to 14 minutes to get going is now getting done in four or five minutes. It’s just the chemicals and the plastics — it burns quicker and hotter” Cummings said.

Dedication to duty

Cummings admits to “putting in some hours,” at work and it’s obvious he takes pride in helping the department get to where it is today.

“There’s satisfaction to being able to accomplish things over the years. We’ve got a new fire station, we’ve basically replaced all of the equipment we have — from fire engines to ambulances to platforms. It’s been a long process but it’s pretty rewarding to be able to say that you accomplished that. Plus, we got all of the fire trucks back to being red,” Cummings said, smiling mischievously.

“Oh, we had green and we had yellow. They thought at one time that green — lime green — was more visible, so that was a safety thing they tried. They did that to about three vehicles,” Cummings said.

“They had a couple of others that were yellow because the city garage was put in charge of ordering them at one time and that’s what public works buys. I got rid of them over the years, through attrition.”

Work has left little time for hobbies. Describing himself as “not a hunter, not a fisherman,” Cummings said he’s been “pretty involved with” the Moose International Local Order of the Moose Lodge 1392 since 1974. He served as its governor for a couple of years and helped build the new lodge, and went on to be state director for Alaska.

He served on the community service committee for Moose International for nine years, and then served on to the board of directors for Mooseheart, a home for kids in need located near Chicago. He joined the board of Moose International three years ago.

“That’s kind of what I’ve been active in, and it’s taken up a most of my spare time,” Cummings said.

Looking ahead

After more than 40 years in the department and recent health problems, Cummings is finally thinking about retirement.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll retire, but it’s probably in the next year or two. I’m leaving it open. In November I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I’m kind of taking it month by month to see what my options are. I’m receiving treatment at the cancer center here. I had radiation, and right now I’m doing hormone therapy and having an infusion once a month. That will go on for quite a while. I’ve been fortunate — I’ve been able to handle it fairly well,” Cummings said.

Cummings said he and his wife, Cathy, who got married in 1993 and have six children between them, plan to stay in Fairbanks after he retires.

They enjoy taking cruises and plan to continue that, concentrating them in the winter months to escape the cold.

When asked if it will be hard to leave a career he’s held almost his entire adult life, Cummings is philosophical.

“Oh, I think when I retire it’ll be time to retire. I think you always miss it — I mean, you can’t do something for 40 years and not miss it,” he said.

Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7590.

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