Jim Millice grew up near the old Wellman fire station and remembers a time before the station even had a fire truck.
Walking through the bay of the current fire station, Millice spotted the old fire cart – a hose wrapped on a spool mounted on two steel wagon wheels.
“They would come to the fire station and open the trunk lid of their car,” Millice recalled. “Two guys would sit in the trunk of the car and hang onto that.
“I can still remember them coming around the corner by my house, and those steel wheels were just skipping across the pavement as they were going up the street with two guys sitting in the back of an old car pulling on that thing.”
Fighting fires has been the family business for Millice.
“My dad (Chase Millice) was assistant chief, and my uncle (Chuck Capper) was chief,” he said. “I always remembered my dad going to the fires when he left the house, and always thought that was the thing to do.”
Following in their footsteps, Millice joined the Wellman fire department in 1959 when he was 19 years old and has been serving on the department ever since then.
“We were just starting to do some of the training,” he said. “The older guys showed us what to do as far as ladders. I couldn’t drive a truck for a while.”
Things have changed a lot since 1959, especially regarding the amount of training firefighters have to do.
“The amount of training we do now is a lot,” Millice said. “Back then, somebody might want to do something in a class, and we’d do it, but that wasn’t very often. Maybe some of the older guys would show you a piece of equipment and how to work it or how to handle a hose on a ladder or how to set the ladders up.”
Today, firefighters have to train on a number of things, including requirements for using the equipment, the bunker gear, the air packs, safe-driving classes, classes on pump operation, all the equipment they have, according to Millice.
He said that dedication is the key to being a good firefighter, and that often drives prospective firefighters away from the business.
“Dedication makes a good firefighter, and that isn’t here any more, not like it used to be,” Millice said. “They have to want to do it. With all the training, you spend a lot of hours down here. You’ve got to have the training hours to meet state and federal regulations to even be on the department.
“They think it might be fun and glamorous, but when they find out all the training that’s required, they’re gone.”
Another difficult aspect of the job is dealing with human loss, a lesson Millice learned in his first year with the department.
“The biggest thing that sticks out in my memory is in the first year I was on, we went out to a fire north of town,” he said. “When we drove into the driveway, I remember seeing two firemen in the back of a station wagon doing CPR on a little girl. She did not make it. I don’t think you ever get used to it.”
Everything changed for Millice in 2004 when he suffered a heart attack.
“After I got through that, I decided I didn’t want to do the hands-on stuff,” he said. “I told them I didn’t want to get into bunker gear because I was reading too many stories about how the highest killer of volunteer firefighters was stress from the job. So, I backed off on that.”
Although he no longer goes into “hot zones,” he is still active with the department, helping in any way he can.
“Now, I’m mainly doing gopher work or driving the truck,” Millice said. “In the summer months, I make sure I get a cooler of water when the crew takes off on a fire. I fill a cooler with ice and water to make sure they have drinking water when they’re out there – taking care of the troops.
“If somebody needs a piece of equipment out of the truck, I can get it. I can help change air packs outside the hot zone.”
Wellman Fire Chief Jeremy Peck praised the work Millice does for the department.
“Jim is everything to this department,” Peck said. “Jim does the things that are hard that nobody else wants to do. He has done that for years and years and doesn’t complain at all. He just puts his nose to the grindstone and does it. This fire department would not operate without Jim Millice right now.”
Last week, the department honored Jim Millice with a pair of plaques marking his 60 years of service. Millice kept one plaque, and the other is on display at the fire station.
Millice has no plans to slow down at this point.
“I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “There is good camaraderie among the people here. The biggest reward I’ve gotten out of it is the people, the guys I work with.
“You’ve got to trust the guys you go into a smoke-filled house with. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be there.”