Regaining independence: Firefighters gather to help one of their own with a wheelchair ramp

Firefighters gathered on a cold windy day to build a wheelchair ramp for one of their own, a retired firefighter and former state fire marshal who has devoted his life to the firefighting profession for more than half a century.

Roger Johnson, 73, who served as state fire marshal from 2005 to 2008, has been essentially home-bound for some time at his residence a few blocks south of Columbus North High School on 23rd Street. Johnson has been using a wheelchair for health and safety reasons, but had no way to leave his home, which has steps.

In an impromptu decision, a group of 22 firefighters representing Columbus and area volunteer departments decided to give Johnson “freedom” on Friday by building a 24-foot-long and 4-foot wide wheelchair ramp off his backdoor, using materials sold at cost from a local home improvement store.

With handrails on each side, as well as girder boards to prevent Johnson’s wheelchair from sliding off, Columbus firefighter and project co-designer Nick Tuttle said he thinks it may be one of the sturdiest wheelchair ramps in existence.

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“We may have overdone it,” said Tuttle, as dozens of firefighters set to work to construct the ramp, some wearing fire department cold weather gear as they worked. “But it is so sturdy you could probably park a truck on it.”

As Johnson watched the ramp quickly taking form from his back door on Friday, he said he felt beside himself with gratitude.

“I’ll finally have some freedom,” said the 1963 Hauser High School graduate, who has been using the wheelchair for about a year as he is continues treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and Parkinson’s disease.

With the new ramp, which leads from the home’s back door to his garage, Johnson said he can now get into his car and drive, as well as take his dog and constant companion, Jake, out for a walk, he said.

The ramp project idea originated during a conversation between Johnson and Columbus firefighter Scott Stam, said Columbus Fire Chief Mike Compton.

Although Johnson never asked that firefighters consider building the ramp, it was Stam who took the initiative to move the project forward, Compton said.

When Stam brought up the idea of building the wheelchair ramp with Lowe’s Home Improvement store manager Angie Suding, she agreed to provide all construction items at cost, Columbus firefighter Ben Noblitt said.

Once all materials were obtained, Stam assessed the firefighter’s statewide union roster to recruit volunteers to help build the ramp, the fire chief said.

By 10 a.m. Friday, there were so many volunteers standing in Johnson’s backyard, extra care had to be taken when moving building materials to ensure nobody got hit.

Compton said it’s all about firefighters showing their respect to an elder leader who always goes beyond the call of duty.

“Roger is a legend in the volunteer firefighting community,” Compton said. “And for Columbus firefighters, he has always been our friend and a strong supporter.”

In a career that has spanned more than 50 years, Johnson has held a variety of firefighting positions on the local and state levels focusing on public safety and the support of firefighters.

Johnson served as the state fire marshal from 2005 to 2008 during the administration of former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

After accepting the position, his first priority was to promote increased training and safety among Indiana’s 27,000 volunteer and career firefighters, including creating the Indiana Fire Academy.

Johnson also served for seven years as president of the 3,500-member Indiana Firefighters Association. It was a position he reluctantly had to give up after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in August 2014.

When Johnson received the Sagamore of the Wabash award in 2016, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence wrote a letter that described Johnson an a great example for Indiana’s next generation of firefighting leaders.

“It is your drive to succeed, your devotion to duty, loyalty to your community, and desire to ensure the safety of all that has built your lifelong firefighting career and legacy,” the current vice president wrote to Johnson. “You truly are a hero.”

When Johnson received the award, then-State Rep. Milo Smith credited Johnson for raising the level of professionalism in firefighting — especially among rural volunteers.

Johnson is known for driving out to fire scenes to see how things are going, and on occasion has sent photos to The Republic after a trip to a fire.

As he was hammering a board into place Friday, Noblitt said Johnson has also worked with local government officials, as well as the state, to address firefighter concerns.

“It’s nice to do something for someone like Roger who has done so much for us,” Noblitt said.

“Roger has had a big impact on the fire service for many years,” said Columbus firefighter and project volunteer Josh Meadows. “He’s had a lifelong commitment to our profession in many different ways.”

“He had been instrumental in providing research to develop statewide policies,” Columbus firefighter Jim Miller said. “This is just a small way to pay him back for everything he has done his entire lifetime.”

It is not unusual for Columbus firefighters to take on these types of projects, Compton said.

Compton and Columbus firefighter Mark Tovey did a similar project at the home of a local firefighter after his wife was diagnosed with a debilitating illness, Compton said.

Johnson said he got hooked on firefighting by watching how passionate firefighters are about their profession — what he saw in the firefighters around him inspired him to pursue a career in firefighting.

“Once it gets in your blood, they say, you can’t get rid of it,” Johnson said.

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Roger Johnson, 73, has demonstrated a lifetime passion for firefighting.  Here are some notable examples.  

  • At age 2, young Roger exhibited a fascination with fire trucks and firefighters while walking past station houses in Wheeling, West Virginia, according to family members.  
  • As a high school sophomore in 1961, Johnson began affiliating himself with the Hope Volunteer Fire Department after moving from West Virginia to Indiana.   
  • As a junior in 1962, Johnson told his classmates at Hauser High School his ambition was to become the state fire marshal.  He achieved that goal 42 years later.
  • At age 18, Johnson started as fire warden at the East Columbus Independent Fire Department in 1964.
  • At age 21, he became a firefighter with East Columbus department and stayed 20 years.
  • Served as a volunteer for 14 years with the Harrison Township’s fire department
  • Sold fire equipment for 20 years for Elkhart Brass.
  • Named state fire marshal by Gov. Mitch Daniels, served in role 2005-2008
  • Served for seven years as president of the Indiana Firefighters Association, before stepping down in 2014
  • Honorary member of Hamblen Township Volunteer Fire Department in Brown County, Edinburgh Fire and Rescue, Columbus Fire Department and Lexington, Kentucky’s fire department.
  • Received Sagamore of the Wabash from then-Indiana Gov. and current Vice President and Columbus native Mike Pence.