Niles fire chief retiring after more than 30 years

Published 9:22 am Wednesday, September 9, 2020

NILES — One Christmas morning not long ago, as children across the globe raced to the Christmas tree to open their presents before breakfast, Paige and Larry Lamb Jr. waited until lunchtime to find out what Santa left them. Their father, Niles City Fire Chief Larry Lamb, spent that Christmas morning fighting a fire in a local mobile home community. 

As firefighters across the country know, these sacrifices are not uncommon. Social gatherings and family dinners end as quickly as it takes a pager to go off announcing a local emergency.

But when Lamb retires in just a few weeks, those interruptions will not be his least favored memories in his 37-year career as a firefighter. Instead, he will look back on the calls he was unable to make.

“It’ll be interesting when I hang up the helmet how I’ll deal with all that, because those calls will still go on, and there will be brave men and women going out to take care of them, and I won’t be one of them anymore,” he said.

Lamb, a Buchanan native, has been passionate about fighting fires since he was 16 years old. After serving two years with the Bertrand Township Fire Department while in high school, Lamb graduated from Galien High School, joined the Air Force and became a fire protection airman. After flying home to interview for the Niles Fire Department multiple times, he earned a spot, and has served the city of Niles ever since. In 1999, he was promoted to fire marshal, and in 2003, he became fire chief.

Niles City firefighters, including Lamb, do more than fight fires. Fire department personnel work with Southwest Michigan Community Ambulance Service as first responders on medical calls, and also serve as the city’s code enforcement officers.

Though Lamb said he has had his share of difficult conversations during code enforcement calls, he will miss the opportunity to work directly with the Niles community and with fellow public safety officers.

“I will most treasure the relationships that I have built because of my work,” he said. “My closest friends have all been firefighters. The relationships with members of this community and other members of the city team are also a gift I will treasure.”

All about teamwork

In his three decades serving Niles, one of the biggest changes Lamb has faced is the number of firefighters available to serve the city.

“In the old days, you had Simplicity and [National] Standard and Tyler’s, and those guys would work a normal 40-hour week, and they didn’t have to have a part-time job afterward,” Lamb recalled. “Some of them like Tyler’s would allow the guys to leave during their work shift to go fight fires. Now that’s unheard of, and a lot of the people that live close to the city may have to work in Elkhart or something.”

As the pool of firefighters in city limits dwindled, Lamb has relied more and more on partnerships with neighboring departments. When working with Bertrand Township, he learned the importance of this teamwork.

“I was taught the importance back then of departments working together,” he said.

When fires occur in Niles and neighboring communities, Lamb knows he can rely on fellow firefighters in departments like Bertrand, Buchanan, Howard and Clay townships to assist — and when able, he returns the favor.

“Niles was able to capitalize thanks to Chief Schabbel over at Clay by becoming the original signatory on the state’s MABAS [Mutual Aid Box Alarm System],” a system designed to call for assistance from neighboring departments. 

Serve and prevent

Throughout his career, Lamb said his mindset has changed when it comes to fighting fires.

“In your earlier days when you didn’t have the responsibility [of running a department], you were just waiting for that next big call,” he said. “Then as you get more responsibility and move farther up the ranks, you start thinking, ‘what did I miss on that inspection?’ It changes perspective a lot.”

Though he said there have been plenty of blazes conquered, damage minimized and lives saved, no fire is a good fire.

“Any time you have a fire — any fire — you’re already losing,” he said. “People have lost property. Their lives are at risk, your guys are at risk. … Obviously you can assign some benefit when you’re in a fire where the neighbor’s house didn’t burn down. There are calls when the guys really did a good job. The coordination was good on the scene, and everybody was safe, but in the end, you’re still looking at a person that’s sleeping at a hotel tonight.”

This mindset has provided motivation for Lamb’s approach to leading the fire department, and why the city’s fire calls are fewer than in some neighboring municipalities.

“It isn’t that our people are that much safer than anybody else,” he said. “I think it’s due to the generational investment we’ve made in fire prevention.”

Lamb and his fellow firefighters from both Niles City and Niles Township fire departments have committed countless hours to educating the community about what to do if a fire happens — and how to prevent one from happening to begin with. From donning yellow yarn wigs and white face paint at the Niles Walmart to rolling around in the mud at the Apple Festival Fairgrounds, Lamb has made it a priority to share that message.

“Those are big wins, the fires that don’t happen,” he said.

A fond farewell

Though Lamb had originally intended to retire at the end of the calendar year at just shy of 31 years with the city, COVID-related budget cuts from the state level pushed up his retirement date by a couple of months.

“When we started planning for next year’s budget, and we were looking at a 10-percent reduction, the only way you reduce a department with 10 people in it — 10 percent — is to cut one throat,” Lamb said. “I’d just as soon cut my own.”

Those who work with him say Lamb’s early farewell is just one example of the character he has brought to the position — and by extension, the city — throughout his career.

“What I’ve learned about the chief is that he has an innate ability to work through difficult issues with others with tact, delicacy and empathy, all while getting the job done,” said Niles mayor Nick Shelton. “He is a genuinely decent man, with an enormous heart, who cares about his neighbors and his community.”

Lamb said the feeling is mutual.

“I have been blessed to serve councils, chiefs and administrators who appreciated our commitments and sacrifices,” Lamb said. “I never once felt unappreciated in my almost four-decade long career. Not too many people can make that claim.”

As he closes out his career fighting fires, Lamb said he is unclear what his future holds, but at least for the time being, he and his wife, Jayne, will continue to call Niles home.

“I want to thank my family for their sacrifice,” he said. “If you’re doing this job right, you miss dinners, promises to spend time together and special events.”

Lamb said that with the size of the department, no firefighter is ever really off duty.

“With the last almost 18 years as chief, the responsibility never really goes away,” he said. “I am looking forward to October when I can take a deep breath and begin to let go of some of that stress.”