MASSILLON, Ohio (AP) — The calls come at all hours. Often, it's in the middle of the night — one, three, five in the morning, it doesn't matter.
There's not much that will keep Bill Whitmore from answering.
In his 68 years as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT), the 85-year-old Navarre man has rarely missed a call.
"I always think, 'someone has to do it.' You're a volunteer, but you can't say 'I don't feel like going today,'" he said. "If everybody felt that way, nobody would show up."
Whitmore joined the Bethlehem Township Volunteer Fire Department right out of high school in 1946. In 1975, he transferred to the Navarre VFD, where he has served since.
He is among the oldest certified EMTs in Ohio — the Ohio Department of Public Safety couldn't say for certain who the oldest is. Whitmore is in the process of renewing his certifications again — as he has every three years since 1946, coinciding with his birthday. Whitmore will be 86 in May.
China Dodley, public information officer with the state public safety office, was able to confirm that Whitmore has two active certifications — EMT-B and VFF) — but not that he is the oldest, because age is not part of the department's regular reporting.
To maintain his certifications, Whitmore is required to log 40 hours of continuing education training, which he does through monthly classes at Mercy Medical Center and at his own fire department. He keeps his certificates handy in case of an audit, which would require him to produce them as proof.
Barring any complications, Whitmore will be certified as an EMT and volunteer firefighter through 2017, when he will be 89.
Like the 1933 Diamond T fire truck he sometimes likes to drive in parades, there are things that Whitmore won't do anymore.
"You gotta double-clutch it, cause it's got all straight gears. . You have a heck of a time driving it and getting it in gear," Whitmore said about the truck, which the Navarre VFD acquired from the Massillon Fire Department in the 1950s. Massillon used it to put out grass fires.
Whitmore doesn't drive when responding to calls anymore, can't lift as much as he used to, and at the request of his family, stays off ladders.
"As you get older, you lose strength," he said. "At my age, I can't do a lot of lifting. . In the last year or so, I've started cutting back."
He said he last went out on a call earlier this spring, before he had surgery to remove cancer from his colon. He expected to resume duties soon.
He said he's never been seriously hurt on the job, though he tells a story about an emergency in the 1970s during which he herniated a disc in his back and hurt his hand.
Whitmore was working at Ohio Edison — which he retired from in 1990 after 34 years — when a truck crashed into the building on Walnut Road in Massillon. The collision tore loose electrical wires, which sparked a fire among some cleaning solution. Whitmore didn't hesitate to spring into action.
"I said, 'we gotta get that guy out of there,' and I climbed over, and that's when I ruptured something," he said. "I helped get the guy out of the truck. There was fire, so hey, I'm going back in to fight the fire. So I crawled back in the building. The smoke was thick. I grabbed the fire extinguisher, and in my excitement, I clamped down and bent the pin. I couldn't get the pin out."
Whitmore's son, Bill Jr., remembers watching his dad fight a garage fire. Bill Jr. was also a volunteer firefighter with the Navarre department at the time, though he was just getting started.
The garage fire was threatening to spread to a house.
"I hadn't had any training yet, so I couldn't do a whole lot," Bill Jr. said. "I remember Dad getting one of the attack lines and starting to charge toward the fire. I thought in my mind, 'what are you doing?'
"I remember being scared for him. He was going right toward it, just like you're supposed to do. He knew what he was doing, and I didn't at the time. I remember being like, 'wow.' That one really opened my eyes."
Bill Jr., 58, is now a volunteer firefighter in Apple Creek, and a part-time policeman at Ohio State University's Wooster Campus. He retired four years ago as a full-time firefighter in Wooster.
Starting around age 10, Bill Jr. spent a lot of time at the fire station with his dad. Often, he'd wait there while Whitmore responded to calls.
The younger Whitmore's interest grew watching his dad. As a 10-year-old boy, he had a small shack in his backyard that served as his own "junior fire department."
He and his best friend, Ernie Lehman, who lived four houses down, responded to their own fire calls.
"People would start little fires, like in a pit or something, and they'd call the boys to come put them out," said his mom, Doris. "He wanted to be a firefighter boy."
The senior Whitmore followed in the footsteps of his own dad, Lloyd, who was a volunteer firefighter while also running a shoe repair shop in Navarre. Now, his grandson, William John "B.J." Whitmore III, wants to join the ranks.
"He's interested in getting on at Apple Creek with me as a volunteer," Bill Jr. said. "I've never pushed him, but he grew up with it even more than I did. He's used to it."
Whitmore also has a granddaughter, Branon, and two great-grandchildren. He and his wife, Doris, recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
The wife and mother of lifelong firefighters, Doris has her own role to play — that of "the great worrier."
"Our doctor once said, 'Bill doesn't worry; Doris does all the worrying," she said. "She's going to have the stroke, and he'll keep on going."
It helps that in Navarre, there are not a lot of big fires.
Whitmore says over the years, he's been on 50 or more fire calls — a lot of them barn fires. "You never save a barn," he said. "Barns burn like paper; it's all dry wood."
One of the biggest fires he remembers fighting was at a dry goods store, right beside his dad's shoe shop in downtown Navarre, in the early 1950s. The fire spread fast, and the roof collapsed.
Whitmore was in a fire brigade while in the Army during the Korean War, from 1951-53. Once, a plane came into the airport on fire.
"We couldn't do anything with that. The plane came to a stop, it was a big bomber, and the guys started jumping out. The next thing you know, fire was coming out of one of the turrets on top. In no time, that thing was just burnt to the ground," he said.
Firefighting hasn't changed much since Whitmore started, he said. "Getting volunteers is getting harder and harder, but basic firefighting is the same as it was years back."
The equipment has gotten heavier, though, which means you probably won't see Whitmore rushing in to fight any more fires.
"I don't think I would," he said. "All that gear, it's just gotten so darned heavy. I can hardly get around in it anymore."
Michelle Williams, a paramedic with the Navarre VFD, met Whitmore when she was a rookie in 1985, and learned all she could from him.
"The way the older ones did it . they followed the Bible: Treat others as you want to be treated. . When my patients today see Bill on the truck, they say, 'Well, hello there, Bill, been a long time.' It's like their illness goes away," she said. "Everyone in town knows Bill."
That can make the job difficult, Whitmore said.
"I like everybody," he said. "I don't like it when somebody I know is in a real bad situation."
Information from: The Independent, http://www.indeonline.com