ELKHART — After 26 years in service to the community, fire investigator Rob Smith is retiring from the Elkhart Fire Department.
His last day is Monday, Sept. 30.
Smith has been battling pancreatic cancer for about two and half years now. Though the numbers went down as a result of treatment, Smith never really went into remission, he said.
Smith had a surgery in March, and after that he had a hard time recovering, he said.
“I didn’t know if I was healing or dying, because I couldn’t eat for a long time,” he said.
But eventually he started to get better.
In June, however, the cancer started growing again, and the doctor told Smith the only option was to treat it with chemotherapy.
The treatment has taken a toll on Smith’s body. When he was first diagnosed, Smith went under chemotherapy treatment, but his strength remained the same.
Smith said he never fully recovered his strength after the surgery in March.
Knowing he couldn’t operate quite the same way as before, Smith decided to retire.
When Smith was diagnosed, he was given up to nine months to live. So he grasped onto his faith and the support of his loved ones.
“I always thought about what people went through when they got that kind of news” he said. “Well I got to experience that, and it’s like no other when reality hits in the face like that.”
After sharing the news with his wife, Smith felt like he had the strength to deal with it.
“I wouldn’t have made it through some of those days if she hadn’t been here,” he said. “She’s watched me go through it all, and I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. But she’s been my support, always trying to do everything she can.”
On Nov. 19, 2011, the community gathered at the Firefighters Local 338 to raise money for Smith’s treatment.
The fire department has remained supportive of Smith while he continued to work there. But the respect some firefighters in the department have for Smith goes far beyond knowing him in the workplace.
“We’re certainly going to miss him. From a variety of standpoints,” said Fire Chief Mike Compton. “We grew up in the fire house. We lose not only 26 years of fire experience, we’re also losing a friend as he walks out the door.”
A TEAM OF SUPPORT
Smith sat in his office Thursday, Sept. 26, sharing stories of his time in the department with Compton and Fire Investigator Tony Balzano.
The three men joined the fire department within a few years of each other. Usually the firefighters in the department will be closer with those of their age. They bond more easily because they share similar mentalities, said Compton.
That was the case with Smith, Compton and Balzano, who have been friends for the last 26 years, and who saw each other grow in their careers and in their personal lives.
The three of them started in the same place, and over the year they moved from one fire station to another, while also changing positions.
After several years of driving an ambulance and working the hydrants, among other positions he had at the fire department, Compton prompted Smith to become a fire inspector.
“It was like the cherry on a sundae. After fighting fires for years and getting that background, getting inside a fire and seeing what you see,” he said. “Now, being an investigator I got to figure out what I was looking at all those times I was fighting a fire.”
Compton added that being a fire investigator meant you also have to do fire safety inspections, and that Smith was empathetic and professional, fitting the job description.
“If you had a problem with Rob Smith you probably had to look yourself in the mirror, because the problem probably wasn’t Rob,” he said.
During his final days working at the fire station, Smith has felt different about his job and his time in the fire department.
He said he looks at the pictures that hang on the hallways, talks with the firefighters and takes in every detail of the place he could call a second home.
“For the last 26 years I was a part of this machine, and to walk in now and know it’s coming to an end is a different feeling for me,” he said.
“I’ll miss it. I’m not afraid of what life has got to offer, so I’m fine there too. It just feels different.”