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Firefighters stepping down after combined 80 years

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Columbus Fire Department will say farewell to a combined 80 years of experience when two of its captains retire later this winter.

Matt Ahlbrand, 57, will step down Feb. 12, and Doug Hollenbeck, 61, will retire March 1. Both men serve as battalion commanders and paramedics at Fire Station 2 on Arnold Street in the Columbus airport area.

“There’s a lot of separation anxiety going on right now,” Columbus Fire Chief Dave Allmon said. “When you lose two people with so much experience and training, it creates a hole that we may never be able to fill.”

Ahlbrand and Hollenbeck say they may have been born with firefighting in their genes.

In 1895, Hollenbeck’s great-grandfather, Ralph Owens, become one of the first three men hired as professional firefighters for what was then a mostly volunteer Columbus Fire Department.

But when the volunteer unit was disbanded in 1918 in favor of an all-paid staff, it was Ahlbrand’s great-grandfather, Walter Doup, who served as fire chief.

As a young boy, Ahlbrand reluctantly moved with his family from Columbus to New York City.

While growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Matt kept a close eye on the men working in the fire station across the street from his house.

“I just remember looking at those guys and thinking that’s what I want to do,” Ahlbrand said.

Similar thoughts were being contemplated by Hollenbeck, who had a member of his mother’s family on the Columbus Fire Department throughout the 20th century.

I’m the fifth and the last generation,” Hollenbeck said. “My mom and dad knew all the guys on the department and always hung around the fire stations. I just always liked it.”

Prior to graduating from Columbus High School in 1971, Hollenbeck got his first job working in an ambulance operated by Reed and Jewell Funeral Home. In 1972, former Columbus Fire Chief Jim Miller encouraged Hollenbeck to go to paramedic school,

and he became a certified emergency medical technician in 1973.

In 1974, Hollenbeck joined what was known at the time as the East Columbus Volunteer Fire Department. That same year, Ahlbrand graduated from high school in Long Island, N.Y., and eagerly returned to his hometown and joined the same organization as Hollenbeck, known today as the Columbus Township Fire Department.

Roger Johnson, who would eventually cap off 45 years as a firefighter by becoming Indiana’s state fire marshal, was the East Columbus Fire Chief when the two rookies joined his department 40 years ago.

“To be honest, some young people volunteer for the fun, the sirens and the lights, but those two weren’t there to play games,” Johnson said.

“You could see immediately that (Ahlbrand and Hollenbeck) were dedicated, loyal and responsible. They were serious about the job, and willing to go above and beyond the call of duty when necessary.”

Coping with tragedy

Both of the retiring captains say it was a tragic accident that occurred less than a year after joining Johnson’s volunteers that made them realize the seriousness of their responsibilities.

During the winter of 1975, a mother attempted to drive across a swollen creek near Ceraland in southeastern Bartholomew County, and got washed away — along with her two young boys.

While Ahlbrand and Hollenbeck spent several hours searching, the mother and her children were found dead when their vehicle was located after the high waters receded.

“That run has always stuck in my mind, and I regret to say Matt and I have been on several runs like that, including fatal fires,” Hollenbeck said. “When you lose a child, it affects you in the long run. I think everyone walks out of here a little bit emotionally scarred from it, but you pick up the pieces and move ahead.”

“It doesn’t matter how many times you have to face it, losing kids is the worst thing,” Ahlbrand said. “Sometimes, it happens long before you arrive, and there isn’t much you can do about it. But still, it’s tough.”

But with each tragic death, there also comes a renewed desire to try harder the next time, Hollenbeck said.

As an East Columbus volunteer, Ahlbrand became both a state-certified firefighter and an emergency medical technician.

Hollenbeck joined the Columbus Fire Department in 1976, while Ahlbrand was brought on board two years later. Early in their professional careers, both men earned their associate degrees in fire sciences through Ivy Tech Community College.

“They saw a future in career firefighting, and eventually, that’s what they both moved to,” Johnson said.

Ladder of success

Over the years, both were able to rise through the ranks. Hollenbeck served as the department’s training officer from 1986 through 1992, and served as deputy chief in charge of operations under former Columbus Fire Chief John Breeding’s administration from 1992 through 1996.

Ahlbrand first became a battalion chief in 2000, and was promoted to the rank of captain in 2007. Hollenbeck earned the same rank just one year later.

They say the most rewarding experiences have been fire runs where good calls are made without injuries to firefighters or the public.

“Matt cares most about the people who work under him,” Allmon said. “And what’s so great about Doug is that he’ll do anything for you.”

For Hollenbeck, the most rewarding experience of his career came during the flood of 2008.

“We pulled two gals off the roof of a car that was getting ready to wash down Haw Creek,” Hollenbeck remembers. “We had to make three attempts, but we were finally able to get out there and pull the girls to safety. But just as we landed the boat back on Rocky Ford Road, their car washed down Haw Creek.”

There’s no doubt both females would have perished if Hollenbeck, Ahlbrand and other rescue workers hadn’t reached them just in the nick of time, Johnson said.

“I ran into one of those girls later on,” Hollenbeck said. “There’s been a number of times when either Matt or I walk into a store, and someone says ‘you picked me up’ or ‘you saved my dad.’ That’s a good feeling to know that people appreciate you.”

Post-retirement plans

Neither of the retiring captains envision La-Z-Boy recliners and daytime television in their immediate futures. After founding his own electric company on Carr Hill Road in 2010, Ahlbrand expects to get more involved with his business.

In addition, much of his time will be spent taking care of his parents, now in their 80s, who have moved back to Columbus from New York, and are now living next door to him.

Ahlbrand and his wife, Ferrell — a nurse at Columbus Regional Hospital — also plan to set aside time to visit their two grown, married daughters and grandchildren.

Hollenbeck, who began assisting the Columbus Township Fire Department on his off-days in 2008, will maintain his paramedic credentials and devote more of his time to that organization on a part-time basis. He also hopes to spend more time teaching fire safety and other life-saving techniques to young first-responders.

He and his wife, Pam — who works for MainSource Bank — are also looking forward to occasional motorcycle rides to Florida to enjoy their favorite pastime: scuba diving.

In regard to Allmon’s concern he may never be able to replace the two veterans, Ahlbrand said his boss may be overstating their importance.

“They don’t have to worry about losing me,” Ahlbrand said. “There’s a lot of very competent and dedicated young guys on the department, and they’ll operate just fine without me.”

But just in case the Columbus Fire Chief’s concerns are indeed justified, Hollenbeck has just two words to say to his boss.

“Call us,” Hollenbeck said. “If they call and say they have a problem, there’s no doubt. Both Matt and I will be there.”

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