On a Sunday afternoon in 1968, a man set 11 fires to fields around Brodhead, sending the fire department on a wild goose chase.
Bob Olsen, nearly 30 years old at the time, was curious, so he followed the crew around. He was a firefighter less than a week later.
Fifty years have passed, and Olsen still hangs out in firetrucks.
The Brodhead native celebrates a couple of milestones this week.
Tuesday marked his 50th anniversary as a volunteer firefighter for the Brodhead Fire Department. He has served under seven of Brodhead’s 11 fire chiefs and is the longest-serving firefighter in the city, he said.
And Friday will be his 80th birthday.
Olsen said he does not plan to hang up his helmet anytime soon. He takes life day by day and will step down when the right day comes—whenever that is.
Fifty years of firefighting
A lot has changed since Olsen first hopped on the back of a firetruck.
Today’s firefighters would never let him hop on the truck the way he did that Sunday decades earlier, he said. And he certainly would not have been allowed to respond to his first fire wearing half of his equipment, as he did in 1968.
The worst fire Olsen remembers was a barn fire set by pigs that had knocked over heat lamps. It was the middle of the night and 30 degrees below zero. Olsen asked himself: Why are you doing this?
The answer was simple, he said. Being a firefighter is a way of giving back to the community.
And if that wasn’t enough, Olsen also served 12 years on the Brodhead School Board.
A lot has changed over 50 years. Olsen said safety standards have improved significantly since he joined the department. Many regulations have had positive results, although a few have been pesky to follow, he said.
He also welcomed such advancements as the Jaws of Life extrication apparatus, better equipment and female firefighters.
Fire and family
A gleam of light reflected off a red stone on Olsen’s ring as he sat on the back of a firetruck Tuesday.
His wife, Donna, designed the ring when Olsen celebrated his 35th year as a volunteer firefighter.
He and Donna raised three children in Brodhead: Deann, David and Dawn. To support his family, Olsen worked at Warner Electric Brake and Clutch in Beloit for 17 years and at Martin Automatic in Rockford, Illinois, for 27 years until he retired.
His family helped him survive 50 years of firefighting, he said.
Donna graciously accepted her husband’s absence at dozens of parties, weddings, trips to the grocery store and other events. She understood that when the whistle blew, Olsen had to leave.
His kids followed Donna’s lead.
‘I’ve done it all’
At nearly 80 years old, Olsen now is limited in what he can do as a volunteer.
He said he does everything he can, including teaching young firefighters how to operate the trucks. Running into a burning house, however, is not on his to-do list anymore.
Olsen is able to do so much at his age because he receives a lot of help from the younger people at the department, he said.
“I couldn’t do it without them,” he said about a half-dozen times during an interview.
If you ask him, the firefighting veteran can list the names and jobs of everyone at the department. He knows his team members well and can rattle off inside jokes they tell, including one explaining how Olsen used to go to fires on horseback with water buckets.
On every Brodhead firetruck is a motto: “Everybody goes home.”
Olsen said that’s a testament to the department’s dedication to safety. In 50 years, he never saw anyone die in a fire.
Olsen believes the team he works with today is the most dedicated team he has seen in 50 years. He is proud to watch the department grow and hopes to keep watching for years to come.