Fighting Fire A Tradition for Michigan Family

PORT AUSTIN, Mich. (AP) -- When the Port Austin Area Fire Department's whistle sounds throughout the tranquil lakeside village, many people take notice. Some even venture out to see what's going on. But that's nothing compared to the commotion the whistle causes in the Zimmerman household.

For many fire departments in the Thumb area it's rather common for several generations of the same family to at one time or another serve as volunteer firefighters. For the Port Austin Area Fire Department, a single family makes up a third of its volunteer force.

The late Don Zimmerman may be responsible for starting what now seems to be a Zimmerman family tradition, when years ago he served as a firefighter on the Port Austin Area Fire Department, putting in about 15 years. He was followed by his son, Don Zimmerman, who joined in 1976. Daughter-in-law Kathy joined 10 years later.

But it didn't stop there.

Don and Kathy's two oldest sons, Jason, 22, and Matt, 20, also joined the department. Jason joined when he was 18. Matt signed on via a program that allowed him to join at only 16.

``Our grandpa did it, our dad does it, and our mom,'' Jason Zimmerman said. ``It just seemed like the right thing to do.''

With four Zimmermans on the department, only the youngest Zimmerman boys _ twins Adam and Josh _ were left.

While the twins both claim they were ``drafted'' by the department, Kathy Zimmerman said that's not true. She said they really couldn't wait to officially join the rest of the family as Port Austin firefighters.

Their wish finally came true when they joined the department just the way they came into the world - together - in October 2003.

``I think we chased just about every fire they had before we were able to get on the department,'' Josh Zimmerman said.

Each of the Zimmerman boys said they helped the department as much as they could long before joining in an official capacity.

With all six members of the Zimmerman family serving as firefighters at the same time, they agree things can get kind of crazy at times. Kathy said with the last of her boys joining the department her work was done, and she retired since the twins signed up.

``When the pagers go off they can be heard all over the house - sounding in unison,'' she said.

Don said that even at the most hectic times, he doesn't worry about having family battling the fires.

``I feel good that they all want to help the community,'' he said. ``I'm very proud of my sons and my wife.''

Don Zimmerman isn't just a Port Austin firefighter, he currently is the assistant fire chief, and he's even served as fire chief at various times throughout the years.

Don Zimmerman said his interest in being a firefighter started years ago when he would follow along with his dad as a youngster. Joining the department happened pretty much the same for Kathy and the boys.

``I'd go along and help in any way I could _ with traffic, whatever they needed help with, I was there. I was always going along with Don, so it made sense for me to join the department,'' Kathy Zimmerman said. ``For the boys, it was the same thing. They were always going out to the fires with us and wanting to help with whatever they could do at the time. They were just so interested in everything.''

Don Zimmerman said it's been the excitement of the fire runs that has kept him interested in protecting the community he has lived in for the past 28 years. Kathy said while it was an Adrenalin rush, it was doing what she could for whoever needed it that made her want to serve.

Both Don and Kathy also were EMTs while serving as firefighters. They retired from being EMTs together in 2000 after about 10 years of service.

``Being an EMT is very time consuming,'' Don Zimmerman said.

Don Zimmerman also owns and operates his own business, Zimmerman Electric, along with his sons. But when the whistle calls, the fires won't wait, so sometimes work just has to.

``We have to drop whatever it is we're doing and go,'' Don Zimmerman said.

Port Austin Fire Chief Dave Schoenfeldt said while the Zimmerman family makes up a third of the volunteer department, it's not just the number that the family represents. It's their loyalty to the department and their interest in protecting their community that makes each of them so valuable.

With the fire department's regulations, Schoenfeldt said it's often hard to find people to volunteer who are willing to give up time to serve and undergo the training required to be a firefighter.

``Right now we don't have a single application for anyone else to join the department,'' Schoenfeldt said. ``We like to have about 18 to 20 firefighters.''

The Zimmerman twins just completed Firefighter One, hosted in Caro. Firefighter One is a six-month class of required fire safety training for all volunteer firefighters. Matt and Jason Zimmerman just completed their Firefighter Two training, which was hosted for firefighters in Pigeon. Aside from the state requiring volunteer firefighters to successfully complete the Firefighter One course, they also must complete 48 hours of in-house firefighter training each year.

Jim Collier, secretary for the Port Austin Area Fire Department, said the fire department spends about $1,000 per firefighter for the training required by the state.

``It's hard to get volunteers,'' Collier said. ``I'm proud that this family is a part of the Port Austin Area Fire Department.''

Kathy Zimmerman said she's always felt it was important for her sons to know how vital it is to serve their community.

``It's a big responsibility, when the pager goes off you don't just blow it off, you drop what you're doing and go,'' she said. ``There are people depending on you to be there.''

While Schoenfeldt agreed with Kathy Zimmerman that it can be tough persuading young people to give up so much time to be a volunteer firefighter, it's an effort worth every second's devotion.

``It's a great feeling to know that you were able to help someone, that you've tried your best to save their property,'' he said. ``If it weren't for volunteer firefighters, there wouldn't be a service. And that's not just here, that's all over the county.''

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