57 years of service: Firefighter and chief recalls the best and worst of his time

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, February 1, 2014

DELAVAN—Neill Flood joined the Delavan Fire Department in 1957 when he was 17.

He moved up through the ranks, served as assistant chief and was named chief in December 1982.

At the beginning of January, Flood retired. He will be replaced by another long-time firefighter, Assistant Chief Timothy O'Neill.

O'Neill also is the paid chief of the Delavan Police Department.

Three generations of the Flood family have served as volunteer firefighters. His father, George Flood, served for 23 years, starting on the day Neill was born.  Neill's son Patrick has been with the department since 1980, and recently announced his decision to retire.

Flood called it the "end of an era."

We asked Flood for some of the highlights of his career.

Q: What was the worst fire you ever went to?

A: “That was the hotel fire in January 1978,” Flood said. “We were there for three days, outside, fighting that fire.”

The fire destroyed the Colonial Hotel and five businesses housed there.

No one was killed in the fire, but one firefighter suffered a back injury after slipping and falling on the ice, Flood said.

Near the end of the fire, Flood's fellow firefighters convinced him to take the big ladder truck back to the garage.

“It was covered with about 4 inches of ice,” Flood recalled. “I was nervous about getting it through the 10-foot doorway “

However, he made it—and then some. He backed the truck in so far that the ladder extending from the back of the truck punched a whole in the back wall into the meeting room.

His fellow firefighters have never stopped giving him flack about it.

“They put a plaque up over the hole,” Flood said.

Q: What was the worst or scariest experience you had on the job?

A: “The worst fire was on South Third Street in an old Victorian home,” Flood said. “Back then, we didn't really have very much personal safety gear.”

And not much turnout gear, either.

Their uniform collections consisted of four rubber rain boots, four sets of hip boots and four helmets bought at a military surplus store. They referred to the helmets as “steel pots.”

Flood shared the boots with a guy who had size 10 feet. Flood's feet are size 12, and he always came back with sore feet.

But back to that Victorian:

Flood was on the second floor of the house, crawling on the floor in a room full of smoke.

“I couldn't breathe,” Flood said.

One of the men he was with got him to a window, broke it out and got Flood some air.

“I was a young guy, a young firefighter, I was going to save the world,” Flood said.

Q: What were some of the biggest changes you've seen in your career?

A: “The biggest thing is the training, and thank God for that,” Flood said.

Much of that training is connected to the safety equipment and technology that helps keep firefighters safe and helps them do their jobs better.

When Flood started, the training was more or less, “here's the fire, and there's the water.”

O'Neill, the new chief, once described his training as “here's your helmet.”

Now, firefighters are required to have more than 90 hours of training, and if they want to reach the level of “firefighter II,” they need another 50 hours, Flood said.

Q: What was the best part of your career? What did you enjoy the most?

A: “The camaraderie that we have,” Flood said.

One of Flood's favorites was Bob Youmans, a man who lived to serve. Youmans was a valuable mechanic, the kind of guy who knew how to make repairs on the fly.

“He came to me when he was 85, and he said, 'Neill, I'm going to retire,'” Flood recalled. “I said to him, 'You can't, you love this so much. You are invaluable to us.'”

Youmans continued to serve as a mechanic for the department.

“I'll never forget the friendships I made with these people,” Flood said.

Even when he was a young man, he was able to connect with guys 40 or 50 years older because of the bond they shared.

“It's like one big family,” Flood said.

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