Keizer Fire Marshal Joel Stein helped drive the old KFD ladder truck from the factory to Keizer shortly after beginning his career with Keizer Fire. He’s opting to retire just after the district purchased a new ladder truck and put the old on the secondary line. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 had chilling effects on emergency services throughout the nation. One of them landed in Keizer Fire Marshal Joel Stein’s driveway.

“We had to do a lot of things differently, we used to keep the fire hall’s bay doors open and people from the community could walk right in and check out the equipment, so that changed. But then they sent out an advisory that anyone who took home marked vehicles should be checking them every morning for anything suspicious before they used them because they might be targeted,” Stein said.

As fire marshal, Stein spends most days when he isn’t at the district offices on call to investigate fires and hopping in the marked car wasn’t something he’d ever given much thought, but his more than 30 years in the fire service can be charted by the changes he’s seen come and go.

He thought about change a lot about as he was making the decision to retire. His last day with the Keizer Fire District will be Feb. 28, about two months shy of his 22nd anniversary with KFD.

“Joel represents those tireless public servants whom constantly monitor the radio for emergencies in Keizer and gave selflessly of his time and commitment to the fire district,” said Keizer Fire Chief Jeff Cowan.

The desire to slow down and recapture some personal time were the primary motivating factors in Stein’s decision to retire. Stein grew up the son of a firefighter in Dallas, Ore., and that’s where he caught the bug.

“As a young kid, I would go to the big fires. I would ride my bike there if I had to, and it was exciting and a privilege to do things like roll hose after the fire was out,” he said.

He started out as a volunteer in Dallas, but applied for what was only the fifth paid position at Keizer Fire District in 1985. He was selected for the job from a field of more than 100 applicants, but he still remembers it as a more simple time.

“There weren’t as many rules, you could ride the tailboard,” he said. “We played pranks and we still do that, but it had a different intensity.”

It was also before the medical calls became the primary business of fire departments.

“We would run on calls and perform first responder duties, but we would have to wait for ambulances to come from Marion County or Salem,” he said.

That’s not to say that all changes are bad.

“During that time, infant deaths and sudden infant deaths were frequent. On those kinds of calls, nothing can prepare you for what you’re walking into. I’ve known guys who left the service because that was something they couldn’t handle. It’s not that they were less capable of doing the job, but unless you’ve got some sort of stress outlet, those calls will eat you up,” Stein said.

Given the chance to serve as city’s fire marshal, successor to Don Boatwright, Stein took on the role in 1989. It was an opportunity to delve into an area that he found fascinating – fire investigation.

“It was kind of like putting a big puzzle back together,” Stein said. “You start from the least damaged point and work back to the most damaged. We may know that it started in the bedroom, but we don’t walk to that bedroom first. We start on the outside and work our way to the room, the quadrant and finally the point of origin.”

It became such a thrill that he started teaching fire investigation classes around the state 10 years ago and is a certified instructor with the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.

The fire marshal position also kept him busy in an unexpected ways, particularly as the city experienced explosive growth in the late 1990s and early part of the new century.

“Every time we had a new development, I was called in to talk with the developers about the sort of road access needed for our vehicles,” he said. “There was a time when the roads were getting smaller and smaller and our equipment was getting larger because we had to carry so much more,” he said.

He understands the frustration some experience when traveling through Keizer Station, but he’s proud to have been part of making sure it had all the necessary tools in place for emergency services.

Through all the changes, he also prides himself on carrying on the work ethic instilled in him by his parents.

“My parents expected a strong work ethic, living by the Golden Rule and leaving things better than you found them,” he said. “I never put myself above rolling hose after a fire. We’re all people and we just have different areas of responsibility. That’s what makes us great.”