October 30, 2003


Hope Robbins, the assistant fire chief of Miami Township Fire-Rescue, will retire at the end of the month.


MTFR’s Hope Robbins to move on

Hope Robbins, the Miami Township assistant fire chief, is counting down to her last mission, “Operation Free Hope,” when she will retire at the end of the month after nearly 17 years with the local fire department. Her co-workers are using the humor of the countdown to couch their disappointment at losing the firehouse’s first lady.

Robbins’s office is a hub for the phone calls, incident reporting, volunteer training and the daily bustle of a fire department — done under the watchful eye of the firefighter teddy bears and toy engines perched on Robbins’s bookshelves and file cabinets. “People don’t quite know what to get a woman firefighter,” Robbins said with a familiar chuckle.

The keys to the department’s fire engine would do for starters. Robbins loves the shiny red trucks, calling them her “girls.” Their appeal drew her to volunteer with Clifton’s fire department 20 years ago.

Robbins and her husband, Steve, had no sooner moved into their new house in 1980 when a recruiter asked if she might want to tour the firehouse. As soon as she saw the trucks, she knew she had to drive them, all of them.

Having grown up watching the TV show “Emergency” and then watching her brother join the Springfield fire department, Robbins was inclined toward firefighting. The service seems to attract a certain type of person, she said. “Everybody else is running out of the building and you’re going in, that doesn’t prove good sense,” she said.

Though firefighters are loathe to praise themselves, they are usually the kind of people who have needs beyond themselves, Robbins said. They need to help others, or they need to know they are making a difference.

Volunteers volunteer out of commitment. “This is not a job you could pay someone enough to do,” Robbins said.

Busy raising a family — Hope and Steve Robbins have two daughters — Robbins didn’t complete her initial training until 1986, after the Clifton and Yellow Springs fire departments had merged to form Miami Township Fire-Rescue. Multiple certifications later, she joined the department as a full-time paramedic in 1990.

Steve Robbins supported her to a degree, but expressed concern about the danger involved. Emergency medical response carried less risk than firefighting, and Robbins could have restricted herself to just the medical side.

“I wasn’t going to do one and not the other,” Robbins said, looking briskly away. “Please!”

Women firefighters and chief officers are rare, Robbins and her co-workers said. But when she started out in Clifton, female volunteers outnumbered male volunteers, she said. Volunteer departments depend on people who are available, and women were often more available than their husbands at that time, she said.

Later when a young Fire Chief Colin Altman joined the department in 1994 and asked Robbins to be assistant chief, their authority was often undermined. “When we started out, Colin was 25 and I was a girl,” Robbins said. “Everybody on the planet wanted to tell us how to do our job.”

Though she has encountered some people who have assumed a woman couldn’t do the job, Robbins persevered and found that the Miami Township fire department was much more inclined to take on women firefighters. Women now make up a third of the department’s personnel.

Ted Wasserman, a part-time Fire-Rescue employee, voiced a great deal of respect for Robbins as a commanding officer. Serving alongside Robbins for the past six years, Wasserman said, the assistant chief exhibits the two most important aspects of fire-rescue leadership, experienced control and calm under pressure.

“She has the ability to see the big picture and multi-task,” he said. “She is a very confident commander, I’ve never seen her frazzled or overwhelmed.”

Of course there are also bad days, inherent in the job of a public safety servant, Robbins said. Fire-Rescue volunteers never know what they will find until they arrive on a scene, and sometimes their patients have already died. And in a small town, Robbins said, workers often must help families they know.

“Dealing with the tragic circumstances they end up in is our job, and we’re faced with trying to go in and make things all better,” she said.

Sensitive caretaker is one of her most important duties, yet not the part Robbins gets to do all the time. Though she would be happy making runs all day, she said, since becoming assistant chief, she has had the added responsibility of mounds of paperwork.

As the director of the safety program, EMS and EMS training, infection control, records, quality assurance and privacy and confidentiality administration, Robbins will be difficult to replace, Altman said.

“Hope did it all, firefighting and EMS, and it will be tough to replace her education, experience and personality,” Altman said. “She is a lot of fun to work with.”

But Robbins said that the job’s heavy record keeping has dragged her down and although she loved being a paramedic, she hated the upkeep and the endless certification paperwork.

Fire-Rescue members say that they will miss Robbins mostly because she is so likeable.

The current group of volunteers has gotten along extremely well, Robbins said, even with the department’s diversity. The Miami Township trustees have also been very supportive of the fire department, she said.

She hasn’t decided what she wants to be when she grows up, Robbins said, but she is not likely to work in another fire department. It would be hard to return to the service as an underling, “given my bossy nature,” she said.

Robbins said she has enjoyed her time with Miami Township, especially when the volunteers get together and have fun, mostly at each other’s expense.

“The good outweighs the bad by far,” she said. “I’ve had a blast.”

—Lauren Heaton