EAST PALESTINE FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief ends career by training successor
Retired Fire Chief Merle Stewart said training has been the department's most significant contribution.
By NANCY TULLIS
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
EAST PALESTINE -- For the past two years, Merle Stewart has been a man on a mission.
Stewart, 65, East Palestine fire chief since 1973, has retired after 40 years as a city employee. Stewart is a certified firefighter trainer, fire inspector and arson investigator. He was also a full-time patrolman with East Palestine police.
He decided two years ago that he would retire at age 65. He planned to spend the time until his retirement training firefighters to ensure there would be good, qualified candidates to replace him.
In April, after several weeks of interviews and civil service testing, the city council approved the hiring of Brett Todd, 44, of nearby Negley, as Stewart's successor.
Todd began his duties as chief Friday, the day after Stewart retired. Todd had been a full-time dispatcher for East Palestine police and fire departments, and a veteran firefighter and EMT with the Negley department.
Stewart said Todd is among the firefighters who completed the 240-hour firefighter training Stewart has taught over the years.
Stewart said that when he first became chief, area departments had to bring firefighter trainers in from the Youngstown area to teach firefighter courses.
"When we started, we were the only ones teaching," Stewart said. "We started ambulance service when it was mostly funeral homes that ran ambulances."
He said the training provided to firefighters and EMS personnel is the department's most significant contribution during his term as chief.
"We've come a long way -- from teaching Red Cross first-aid courses to training EMTs and paramedics," Stewart said. "We've kept moving forward, and there's no reason that shouldn't continue."
Another goal Stewart hoped to see accomplished before his retirement was for the department to operate full time.
He lobbied city officials about the need for a full-time department. Voters defeated a 1/2 percent income tax request in 2001 to fund full-time EMS personnel.
Firefighters and EMS personnel said that with about 5,000 residents 20 minutes away from the nearest hospital in Salem, response time would be much shorter if EMTs and medics were at the station.
Firefighters supported the EMS effort, and Stewart still believes a full-time department is needed.
Stewart has seen requirements for firefighters and EMS personnel change greatly over the years, and as more training is required, fewer people aspire to enter the fire and emergency services fields.
Besides initial training, firefighters and EMS personnel must meet monthly requirements for training and continuing education to keep their certification, he said.
With 40 years as a police officer and firefighter come lots of memories, most of them good, Stewart said. He said, however, there are some not-so-good memories -- of two train derailments and three fatal fires -- memories that don't stay tucked away easily, he said.
He lives in East Palestine with his wife, Nancy. The couple have four grown sons and seven grandchildren.