Alto Fire Department Chief Retires after 26 Years of Service

The Alto Fire Department said goodbye to their leader for the past nine years and member of the department for a quarter century.  Chief Phil Dougherty spent his last day on the job manning a firefighter training camp station at Alto Elementary’s Field Day on May 31.  It was a fitting last day as he has enjoyed being involved in the community during his time with the department.

Chief Dougherty (second from the right) spends his last day on the job at Alto Elementary’s Field Day with some of his team.

Decades of Service in Alto
Dougherty began working with the department the spring of 1992, at the age of 18, a month after his friend Brian Schumacher.  That summer, while working at Bergy Bros Elevator, he started basic EMT training followed by firefighter school, the latter of which was held at the Alto station.  His skills would be tested early, as the day after completing CPR training he and Schumacher would be called to the site of an accident. “We did CPR on a well driller whose beam had hit an overhead power line. It blew his gloves and shoes off, he was resuscitated and lived.” Dougherty recalls.  That was his introduction into the department. Since that day 26 years ago, he has dedicated his life to saving, helping, and teaching others. He would go on to paramedic school in 2008 to further his knowledge and training as it pertains to saving lives.

Being part of a fire department isn’t just about extinguishing flames.  Oftentimes, it’s the fire department which tends to injuries at a scene until paramedics arrive.   Equipment available for firefighters includes items medical in nature, chainsaws, mechanical tools, and other items in addition to hoses for water and ladders, which are the traditional items associated with those who battle fires.

When asked about one his most memorable calls while working with the department, Dougherty goes back to the year 2000.  He talks of delivering a baby boy, who would be named Jacob. “I did the catching while my father in law, Bill Wieland, was on the phone relaying directions from the 911 dispatcher.” he says.  The event took place in the early hours of October 14, which was also the day after his mother-in-law passed away. “The striking contrast between losing one person and watching another come into the word is such close succession will always stand out in my mind.”      

Dougherty spent every other weekend participating in Fire Officer training for 12 weekends.  He knew he wanted to be in a leadership position. This training lead to June 1, 2009, when Dougherty would take over the role as Chief from retiring Chief Jerry Postumas.  A year later, to the date, he would experience his first structure fire as Chief. It was a barn on 64th west of Bancroft. And the relatively new Chief was happy to have that milestone out-of-the-way.

While he was Chief at the Alto Fire Department, Dougherty enjoyed being out in the community.  He and the department can be seen at community events, but one of his favorite places to go for outreach programs is Alto Elementary School.  Teaching fire safety in the fall during October’s Fire Prevention Week, being involved with the yearly carnival, having a station each year during Field Day, and training school staff when it comes to cardiac arrest drills are some of the things he enjoyed coordinating and taking part in each year.  

Back to Basics
Dougherty credits his wife, Jennifer, of 22 years for his longevity in serving with the Alto Fire Department.  “I would not have been able to serve our community without her support. She is absolutely the unsung hero who held down the fort when I would leave at a moment’s notice.” he says with gratitude.  During his training prior to taking on the role of Chief, Jennifer would travel with him, nearly 100 miles one way, the weekends he spent away from home. Any significant other of someone working in any fire department knows about personal and family sacrifice which comes with the job.

The two have four children, the oldest of which will be heading off to college next year.  Chief says now is the time to focus on being at home. Last fall Dougherty and his family started a turkey farm where he will spend some of his retirement time.  He’ll also have more time to for his Dad role, being able to attend event where his kids are involved.

During the last nine years, the department call volume has increased by 60% going from 180 to 280 calls annually.  Dougherty also thanks the community and support from his department for his success as Chief. He has been able to work with “a great bunch of people with great equipment”.  He feels confident in passing the reins on to Chief Rick Vriesenga saying, “Our people do a great job staffing calls all hours of the day and night. Chief Rick Vriesenga has many years of experience as a firefighter, paramedic and Fire Officer. He is a homebody and cares about people and our community.”  Dougherty indicated he may return to serve under Vriesenga on a limited basis after he has had time to settle into the role.

Congratulations to Chief Phil Dougherty on his retirement.  Enjoy spending time with your wife and kids – Ella, Sam, Maeve, and Caleb.  It goes without saying the community served and the people touched appreciate the years of service provided.  

Photos used in this article used with permission.

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