GREAT FALLS — December of 2021 marked a milestone for Dick Swingley, as he retired after 51 years serving for the Great Falls Fire Rescue as well as other roles in the community.
Swingley was in the first graduating class at CMR high school. He took on various jobs such as construction and a baker at Albertson's. That was when a friend approached him with the idea of firefighting.
Swingley stated, "when I first started back in November 9th of 1970, a friend of mine told me there were some openings at the Fire Department. I hadn't even thought about it, and when I got on, it was a matter of just being a firefighter, just putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, and being a firefighter. I never dreamed that I would end up where I'm at, but then I was like everybody. Just started off as a firefighter and from there it just grew. I just moved through the ranks and eventually became the Fire Marshal for the City of Great Falls. From there, I retired and went to work for the state and as a deputy state Fire Marshal here in Great Falls. And then in 2016, the State Fire Marshal retired, and then I was appointed State Fire Marshal."
While speaking with Swingley, he discussed some of his most memorable moments in the Fire Department. Just like anyone who serves in the line of duty, they tend to see the worst situations.
Swingley spoke on some of the hardest moments he witnessed during his tenure.
"There's always big fires," Swingley noted. "Back when I first started, there were lots of big fires. We'd have four or five major fires every year. One of the ones that kind of sticks out was the paper company fire on Second Street. It was super cold out. It was so cold, you were just a sheet of ice, and the nozzles were so frozen, the water on the end of the nozzle was sticking out. After the fire was out, for the most part, we'd come outside, and it would be winding down, and the old timer Firemen would be sitting there, smoking a cigarette. I just made a comment, 'Didn't you guys get enough smoke?' And yeah, that was wrong thing for a rookie to say...So it was one of those things that sticks out in my mind.
He added, "Through 50 years of fire service, I've seen lots. One that really hit home, after I left the fire suppression side, I was working for the State Fire Marshal's office. At the time, there was a fire on my birthday, and I had my family here and my grandkids were with me, and I got called out on a fire up in the Highwood Mountains. When I got there, there was another multiple-fatality fire where there was a grandpa and his granddaughters. That one hit home because I had just left my grandkids. That one always sticks out in my mind. It was one of those tough ones to get over."
Despite the hardships however, Swingley emphasizes that there are many benefits to the job as well, and that knowing you are serving your community makes a big difference.
Swingley said, "Firefighting is an honorable service, just like any emergency services, police, fire, medical. It's a public service. You're not going to get rich doing it, but you're going to live comfortably."
He also noted the feeling of being a firefighter is like no other.
"It's an adrenaline rush when you're fighting fires," Swingley said. "It's a lot of work, but very satisfying when you protect people and you save people, or you save property. It's very satisfying."
Swingley mentioned that something that tends to be on his mind is the Code Enforcement, mentioning back in his day, there were up to five major fires a year, whereas these days, one is a lot. This, he says, has to do with Code Enforcement.
Swingley said, "When I was on the Northwest Regional Fire Code Development Committee, it was for the National Fire Codes. We meet twice a year, and we go over codes and we would update codes or make new codes, and in doing so, we'd make more stringent codes, because of things that have happened. The past codes are developed because of things that happened, and we don't want them to happen again. So, you put the firewalls in places, or you put sprinkler systems in places because of situations that have happened that we don't want to happen again. If they do, we want to mitigate it the best we can with that before the firefighters get there to protect the firefighters and protect the citizens. Sprinkler systems are the built-in fires protectors. I have rental systems in my house, and I firmly believe in them, and with everything going on in this world today, with the lack of volunteer firefighters, it's getting harder and harder to find volunteer firefighters with budget cuts in cities and states where you don't have a number of firefighters. The in-house firefighters, which are sprinkler systems, are the thing that is going to be the thing of the future.
Inching closer to his 8th month of retirement, Swingley reflects on some of the things he enjoyed most during his tenure.
Swingley stated, "One of the big things that I did with the city, when I was the Fire Marshal, we developed a fire prevention program for the schools. I was involved in that, too. I'd dress up in my uniform and have a tie on and go in there and start talking about fire safety to the kids. I'd have their attention for about two minutes, and then they'd be bored. So, we incorporated characters and skits, and through the years, we developed programs that were very entertaining and educational at the same time. We have the kids interacting with us and the teachers interacting with us, spreading the message about fire prevention, yet entertaining. It was a lot better than just standing up there trying to explain fire safety. That was one of my best accomplishments."
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